It’s the seventh day of the week today. Like every other Sunday, this one is somnolent, almost as if the week has grown weak, having reached into its pharmacopoeia to pop one of the soporific pills that is supposed to aid its rest – just as God intended.
We have just returned from church and I can still hear the last choir songs blaring from the megaphones of the two bamboo–and–tin–roof churches in our street. The sound is metallic, somewhat irritating and I’m eagerly anticipating the churches’ dismissal. Outside, the sun is glistening, mercilessly churning out its rays, so that I cannot help but think how uncomfortable it will be to stand under its harsh glare, bent over a plastic basin in our spacious backyard. The heat inside is smoldering. Beneath my loose T-shirt, I can feel the sweat trickle down my arms from the insides of my newly-shaved armpits as I gather the clothes together with the half-used detergent and green bar of soap.
“Amanda,” Mama whispers as I turn to leave my parents’ bedroom where I’ve come to collect her laundry. I know that tone; it is conspiratorial, just the way it always is each time she confides a secret to me. Papa must have erred for the umpteenth time. I look back at her. She is beckoning to me from the edge of the bed where she’s perched. Her face is smug, her mouth curved into a small smile and this makes me uncertain about my earlier reckoning.
“Nne! Come! Come and sit,” she says, patting the small space to her left, on the bed. And before I am seated, she rambles in a hushed tone: “Er… That woman called again… Jane. I saw the name on the screen. Your father was reading his newspaper outside so I took the phone to him.” She appears excited; I can count nearly every tooth in her mouth as she seems unable to wipe the complacent grin off her face. “Do you know what I told him? I gave him a piece of my mind o. I said, ‘you have started again! This was what you did before you got that witch pregnant and now we have to live with your mistake. You want to repeat it, eh?’ ”
It takes me a moment to grasp that she has referred to Bethel as a mistake. Or is it the act that led to his conception that she has so labeled? Bethel, Papa’s last child and my half-brother, has only recently joined us in Lagos after six years of vehement refusal. His mother feared that Mama would do something harmful to him, so she’d refrained from letting him come until Papa’s threat to stop sending child support subsequently materialized. Ironically, Mama is so steeped in religion and piety that she is utterly incapable of hate. Consequently, Bethel has begun to adapt so much so that every other day, when his mother calls, he grumbles – in the puerile way of boys – before he takes Papa’s phone to speak with her. He has even begun to refer to Mama as ‘Mama’, just as Justice and I do.
“What did Papa say afterward?” I ask. I know Papa’s harsh temperament. I expect that he must have shouted her down or simply tapped his forefinger against the side of his head and said you don’t have common sense, as he always does each time he is provoked by Mama.
“What could he have said, eh, nne?” Her expression is mocking now, her face all puckered up. “He knows that what he’s doing is bad.”
I now understand Mama’s tentative grin; she feels triumphant. She has been so mistreated by Papa that she considers his uncharacteristic vulnerability – his speechlessness – a victory. For a moment, I study the dust motes swimming in the slice of sunlight that has defied the net and louvers and has insistently chosen to pierce through, spilling an odd rectangle on the floor. I shift my gaze to Mama’s face; her expression is quite different from what it had been four days ago – on Wednesday – when she first found out Papa had a thing with Sister Jane, a light-skinned lipstick-wearing usher at our regional headquarters, where we worship once every month.
Mama and I had been watching a rerun of Big Brother Africa in the living room and when the bald male host announced a quick commercial break, she’d seized the opportunity to empty her full bladder. When she returned to join me on the sofa, she still hadn’t used the bathroom, instead her face had become ashen. The look on it was distant and her lips quivered, like one who had just witnessed an incident so calamitous it tugged at the strings of her sanity. From behind the closed door of their bedroom, Papa’s suggestive conversation over the phone with Sister Jane had greeted her ears, she told me.
The daunting realization that Papa had taken his promiscuity as far as God’s house was what confused Mama, and not necessarily the fact that he’d been promiscuous. Promiscuity was second nature to him and over time, Mama had learned to turn a blind eye to his sexual escapades. It was evident in the discreet phone calls he took, often using a voice affected just enough to give it a crisp, simulated impeccability; it was there also in his keeping late nights although his underpaid lecturing job at the polytechnic didn’t require him to be at the office beyond four p.m.; it made itself known, too, in the way he would come home inebriated and smelling of alcohol, even during festivities and on public holidays, when he should have been with us; and most notably, it reared its ugly head in the many silver foils from various condom brands that, countless times, Mama had retrieved from the pockets of his trousers – it was anyone’s guess who he used them with, going by his job specifications. Mama had grown thick skin for all of this after every single admonition proved abortive. You know what they say about things being so abnormal that they quickly become normal, I think this was the case. She was done trying to change him and had finally accepted him for what he was, perhaps with moribund hopes that he would one day turn a new leaf. As she put it, it no longer mattered to her that Papa was soiling himself in infidelity, so long as he kept it away from home. And Papa probably knew of this unspoken rule too.
As I stared at Mama that Wednesday, I wasn’t angry with Papa at all, instead I was pissed at Mama for having married him although the signs had all been there initially. When Mama first met Papa, a young and promising bachelor, he already had a son with his high school sweetheart. If that hadn’t sufficed to be a red flag, I wasn’t sure what would. And, although, Obinna was in his mother’s custody at the time, he was always bound to come live with Papa someday. But I guess love, or whatever we construe to be love, helps us make the most idiotic decisions, and so Mama couldn’t have cared any less – she was in love. Shortly afterward, Justice and I were born, Justice having come first.
Mama always told me that Justice had literally slipped out of her, but my birth, on the other hand, had proved much more herculean, and in the end, the doctors had opted for a Caesarean section. In simple English, I was responsible for the excess fat and flaccid folds of skin with the stretch marks that seemed to have been deposited around her waist, so that each time she donned a skirt, its hems would duck for cover beneath them. Consequently, Papa began to seek sexual pleasure outside.
The first time Papa was caught being lascivious, it was with Ukamaka, the girl Mama brought from the village to help with cooking and cleaning around the house. Papa began to urinate frequently at midnight until Mama found out that he wasn’t using the bathroom at all. He would simply go to the living room for quick thrusts as this was where Ukamaka laid down her mattress with its frayed fabric and decrepit, hole-ridden foam every night. She couldn’t have slept elsewhere: our house consisted of a living room, kitchen, bathroom, and two bedrooms, one belonging to Mama and Papa, and the other cohabited by Justice and I. Papa was obviously undeterred by the innumerable bedbugs which that ancient mattress must have housed, or even by the ill-fitting palm oil-stained dresses Ukamaka wore, or her uneducated rural Igbo accent, or the asphyxiating rustic stench that came from her hairy armpits and lingered in the air assailing people each time she walked by. Sexual gratification mattered more.
Mama’s suspicion was aroused when Ukamaka became slightly narcissistic, often staying a little too long in front of the mirror and subsequently investing more effort in her appearance. Her usually long and dirty flowing gowns were ditched for more skimpy dresses that exposed the outline of her hips and well-rounded buttocks. And then, she began to talk back to Mama. After Papa left for the office one Monday morning, Mama discovered that Ukamaka hadn’t washed Justice’s and my school uniform.
“Bia, Ukamaka, why didn’t you wash these children’s uniforms over the weekend?” she asked, holding out the clothes.
“I forget,” Ukamaka replied, rinsing the porcelain dish she had just sponged in the sink and passing it down to me where I was crouched. I set it atop the growing pile of already-cleaned dishes I’d been stacking together on a round aluminum tray that sat on the floor. Ukamaka’s response had come out nasal and indifferent.
“Imagine! How can you forget something like that? You know they can’t go to school without their uniforms and you stand there to tell me that you forgot. What were you thinking of that made you forget, eh? Do you have a husband? You better be careful!” Mama’s fingers were trembling with suppressed rage as she turned to leave the kitchen, but something Ukamaka murmured caught her attention. I heard the last bit: “Is it because I didn’t publishize it?”
“What did you say? Eh? What?” Mama thundered.
“Nothing,” Ukamaka replied, and Mama stormed out of the kitchen, seething. Ukamaka murmured incomprehensibly as we finished the remaining dishes, and I wondered what it was that she had talked of publicizing.
When Mama mentioned to Papa that Ukamaka had begun to ‘grow wings’, Papa merely laughed and passed it off as a phase. And then, on one of those nights when Papa would go out to “urinate”, Mama had awakened in his absence and waited endlessly until he rejoined her on the bed. When he climbed in beside her, his breath was heavy in a way that suggested he had exerted himself. Silently, Mama gathered her robe and made her way towards the living room. When she flipped on the switch and the yellow light from the light bulb swallowed the darkness, Ukamaka was still pulling up her underpants. Ukamaka left for the village the following day and Justice and I began to assist with the domestic chores. At the time, we were nine and seven years old respectively. It baffled all three of us how Papa’s illicit affair with Ukamaka had evaded our notice. Perhaps Papa had been really good at concealing it. That had to be it; he never seemed to notice, or even acknowledge her existence. He never even looked at her those times when he would ask her to fetch him a glass of water.
Papa found Jesus afterward and began to attend Sunday service with us, often taking us in his Volkswagen. He soon began to participate in our daily and nightly prayers too, and no longer complained of being too weak to join. A short time after, he began to head the prayer sessions and soon his prayers became even lengthier than Mama’s, mostly because he would say the same things repeatedly in a circuitous way and in a different and more complex language every time. Sometimes he would pray for so long that fresh ideas – something to ask or thank God for – would begin to elude him. Each time this happened, he would let off a spurious cough, trying to rearrange his thoughts in that brief moment. In the typical manner of academics, he would scour the newspapers for grandiloquent words and then acquaint himself with them during prayer sessions so that countless times, we were befuddled and merely said ‘amen’ to intellectual prayers we did not understand. He practised, also, during prayers, the correct vocalization of the light and heavy th sounds in words, and sometimes his thoughts would get so jumbled up and discombobulated that he would end up displacing and mixing up the sounds with the t sound, so that a word like important would be verbalized as importhant. Every time this happened, Justice and I would cast each other knowing glances and press our palms tightly to our faces to stifle impending bouts of laughter. Sometimes we managed to suppress them to giggles.
When the pastor at our church noticed Papa’s heightened interest in church activities, he persuaded him to be the orator, and in the minimal space that the rundown of the church’s weekly activities afforded him, Papa would continue with his grandiloquence, never minding that half the church were illiterate. His pedantic display irked me, but the pastor, obviously impressed with Papa’s mastery of, and adroitness with the English language began to invite him to conclude the services. Once again, Papa’s overzealousness would make itself known in the twenty-one hallelujahs he asked the church to bawl, even though the pastor merely called for three or seven when he concluded the services himself.
With all of these, Papa was able to pull the wool over Mama’s eyes and soon, the entire episode with Ukamaka was forgotten. My notion of Papa was unaltered, though, because there were those times when, sitting with him in the car, I would observe out of the corner of my eyes, how he leered at female passersby who happened to be provocatively dressed. The glances were always quick and surreptitious, so that if I hadn’t had the preconceived notion that he would leer, I would not have noticed his eyes roving sideways, even with his face to the front. And then, Bethel had happened; the result of a short trip to the village.
Once, sitting in the car with Papa, I recalled a joke about a girl having told a guy who fancied her that all men were dogs. In response, the guy quipped that if all men really were dogs, what breed, then, was her father? That day, I wondered what breed Papa was. I wondered, too, if Justice was of that same breed. Papa’s philandering ways were rubbing off on him and he was already following in his footsteps, what with the innumerable girlfriends he synchronously kept. My dapper brother with his irresistible charm. The girls surely felt helpless around him; that explained how he got them although he could in no way boost their GPAs as Papa could. He insisted that he didn’t want them, that they came of their own volition. But I knew he did. If he truly didn’t want the girls, he could have stated it in lucid terms so that they would hightail it; no one wants their heart to be another’s plaything.
And then, I wondered about Obinna. Perhaps he too would have emulated Papa if he’d been here, instead of in our hometown, Mbaino, near his mother. He wasn’t exactly leading an exemplary life there, but at the very least, womanizing wouldn’t be one of his misconducts. He’d refused to go to a university after high school in Lagos, insisting that he would rather get a job and begin to earn a living than waste another four years of his life to get yet another paper that he would pile atop the ones he’d previously accumulated. Papa had been livid and sent him back to the village. Later, when the perfect job he’d envisioned would not materialize, he began to play street football, calling it a career. And then, he got incarcerated a few times for being in possession of marijuana. Papa disowned him afterward and ceased to mention him at all. I wondered if Justice’s womanizing was better than all of Obinna’s police trouble; or perhaps not.
I could almost perceive the whiff of animosity between my charming brother and my not-so-charming half-brother, even though they seldom saw each other because we hardly ever went to the village. But there was no denying that the animosity existed, mostly because Obinna felt cheated, displaced and usurped of his birthright by Justice. Justice didn’t seem to care or even notice any of this; all he concerned himself with was how to keep this or that girl from finding out that he was also dating this or that girl. Life, for him, was a game and like all games, it wasn’t to be taken too seriously. I believe this indifferent attitude to life was why he didn’t notice when Mama didn’t come out to join us for prayers on Wednesday night; he was probably still thinking about his girls. Papa did notice, though I am not certain he knew the reason because Mama had inexplicably chosen not to confront him. She had simply turned off her visibility switch and walked around the house as though she’d become air – unobtrusive and invisible.
And then, the next day, at the Thursday deliverance service, they sat side by side as usual, although they didn’t speak to each other – not even when she passed him the offering bag. When, after the service, our obsequious pastor approached them and began to discuss politics and religion, somehow incorporating one into the other, Mama had no choice but to contribute her own quota so that their fight would be less apparent. They spoke and argued for so long with the pastor that in the end, it was impossible for Mama to go back to being inimical.
Something brings me out of my trance: a colony of ants dragging along a newly dead but much bigger insect – a wasp perhaps – at a far corner of the room, near the wall. I marvel at how true the mantra is that there is strength in numbers. Then I catch a glimpse of Mama’s face; it has impatience written all over it.
“I am talking to you and you are just looking like a mumu.”
I wonder briefly if my musing has really made me look like a nutcase. Then I hit her arm lightly – a friendly pat.
We laugh momentarily. I know that I am her confidant, that she tells me things she won’t tell her few friends, or even Justice, and sometimes she expects me to make comments – mainly snide ones about Papa’s hypocrisy – but this time, I do not intend to do so. I am not even certain what it is I feel right now; perhaps it is pity, sympathy, but I am certain it is not empathy. I simply cannot fathom her unwavering faith in the possibility that Papa might be capable of change; that his silence this time might give rise to an in-depth soul-searching and subsequent moral upgrade. She is clueless – she still hasn’t learned that men are utterly incapable of change; that when a man promises to change after he’s been promiscuous, what he really means is I’ll be more discreet henceforth; that Papa doesn’t cheat because he intends to hurt her but because promiscuity, for him, has become a habit, and like all habits it will take a colossal amount of determination and self-discipline to whittle it – the kind that hardly seems humanly possible.
I reach for one of Papa’s flip-flops lying near the foot of the bed. Then, I move over to squash the ants and their unconscious prey in one fell swoop, wondering all the while what Mama’s disposition will be towards Sister Jane the next time we worship at the regional headquarters.
Related country: Nigeria