Fine China: by Caleb Somtochukwu Okereke

Photo credit: Alejandro Hernandez via Flickr

My brother, Olileanya, was born on an evening in January 1984 at Holy Mary’s Maternity in Mother’s hometown, Osumenyi. It was a Sunday afternoon, we had just finished eating rice and chicken, and Father was arguing about the new head of state, General Muhammadu Buhari, when Mother went into labour.

She had screamed and whined painfully, reciting the decades as Father shoved her into the back seat of the Volvo. I did not see them again until that evening when Father came home.

“Adaku, your mother is fine” He said, “She has just delivered a bouncing baby boy, you now have a brother”

My Mother came home the next day, a Monday, and I had not gone to school. She came home in the bird-patterned wrapper and she was clutching my baby brother in her arms.

“Some things will have to change,” Father said. Mother had to quit her job at the local primary school to take care of my brother properly.

On the same day, Mother announced that my baby brother would be called Olileanya, Hope, because he was indeed her hope for the future.

***

Things changed as Father said they would when my Brother was born. Besides the fact that Mother was at home when I came in from school every day, and strange syrups joined the Horlicks, Peak Milk and Blue Band on our dining table, our family physician Dr Uche, Father’s friend from the university began to visit more often. I saw him on Sundays and on Wednesdays in my parent’s room, tending to Olileanya, forcing the syrups in coffee coloured bottles down his throat and awakening his jerking coughs, nursing him as if something was wrong.

Mother no longer cleaned her rows of fine china she said Father bought on a business trip to Hong Kong the year I was born, the flower patterned teacups with matching saucers. She instead waited until I got home from school and pushed the pink JACOB WEDS OLUOMA towel into my palms before saying “fichia mu ifea, Adaku, clean it biko”

Once, our neighbour, Mrs Johnson, who mother gave our old clothes, had come to ask why Olileanya cried so often, why his cry was shrewd, like someone in pain. Mother carefully and quietly rebuked Mrs Johnson and I never saw her in our house again. When I greeted Mrs Johnson some weeks after, she did not reply.

Olileanya turned one in January 1985, we played the late Rex Lawson’s tape in our sitting room amongst ourselves, and Father talked of football, about the first under-seventeen world cup that would take place later that year in China. That night Olileanya had cried for so long that  Mother had sprayed the holy water she blessed at the last women’s retreat around him. Soon, his cries ceased.

***

The final match of the tournament between Nigeria and USSR would mark a significant turning point in our lives, for it is on that day I discovered what was wrong with my brother.

Father would be in the living room with Mother, staring at our big television and saying “Ifukwa these boys?” when the players did not meet up to his expectations, and “Ahhhh!” when someone narrowly missed a goal.

I would find my Mother’s monthly prayer point, lodged underneath her reading glasses and something would lead me to peer at the list of five things, which she dropped in the prayer box in our church.

  1. Guide the new business my husband is doing
  2. Give me a new job
  3. Heal Olileanya of sickle cell anaemia

I stopped at the third prayer point. I did not know exactly what sickle cell was but I knew it was something bad because it required healing; I knew too that something was terribly wrong with my Brother.

I did not say a word to either of my Parents that night, I stared blankly at Father as he prattled to Mother about how the Golden Eaglets had scored four goals, twenty minutes into the end of the match, about how the broadcasters were calling it “The miracle of Damman” and about how this had stunned the world.

I stared even longer at my baby brother Olileanya, playing with the threads on Mother’s hair; she had worn Isi Owu that week. He did not look like the sick people I saw sprawled on mats when we drove past the General Hospital every Sunday on our way from church. Olileanya was cheerful.

I checked the meaning of the word in my Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary that night and it read – a disease characterised by sickle shaped red blood cells. As I did not understand what it meant, I asked my schoolteacher the next day who said, “Ah! It is a deadly disease o, no one survives it”.

***

Sickle cell haunted my life after that day. It trailed after me, chased me. I saw it in my dreams as the reaper that had come to steal our happiness and on my way to school as the ruthless driver who remorselessly splashed mud on my white. I saw sickle cell at confession, it was the Priest who wanted to cajole information from me. Who pressed and pressed until I said, “Bless me Father for I have sinned”.

Sometimes, it became Father and Dr Uche, or Mother preparing Ofe Nsala for dinner or Mrs Johnson when she ignored my greetings. Other times it was my baby brother or me; it was everything wrong, everything that changed our lives.

I nurtured this secret for weeks.

I pretended to be deaf to the cries my brother made at night; I shut my eyes tightly when Dr Uche ran into our house on an emergency. I pretended that I did not see that the syrups on the table we’re replaced with colourful tablets, because my brother had grown older and could swallow them. Or Mother could fit them into his Eba for dinner to conceal their bitterness, that I did not hear the prayers sifting from Mother’s bedroom on Wednesdays when Olileanya’s cries got too loud.

“I know you know” Mother said one afternoon, two months after I found out. We were watching a television programme “I just want you to know that you can tell no one”

My voice shook “But Mother, what exactly is wrong with my Brother? My teacher says he would die”

Mba! its sickle cell anaemia” she said “And people with it live long, they just have to take their medications”

Things changed again for the second time when Mother found out I knew. She told Father the same day and our house had seemed smaller, its brown ceilings seemed closer, not big enough to house the sudden discomfort that had lobbied its way into our lives.

They changed because as my Brother grew older, Mother started to prepare two meals. She called one “His meal” like a warning and she made it with such precision-carefully slicing the purple onions, chopping the green vegetables-that one would think it was the last meal she would ever prepare. He was not allowed to join me in eating Golden Morn or Quaker Oats; he was not allowed to drink Horlicks. She boiled his water at night, turned them into Eva bottles she rinsed countless times, and placed them in the last column of the fridge accompanied by a “No one should touch this water” sign.

She said it was my duty to protect my brother, as he grew older, to let no one know about his illness.

Therefore, from that day, I went to fetch the coffee coloured bottles from the dining table to give my brother his medications. I replied the adults who asked me why he cried too often with an “I don’t know”.

I was there with Mother, the nights his cries skyrocketed, my eight-year-old understanding wishing my brother were normal, wishing he didn’t have to go through much pain. Olileanya was a discomfort. I imagined his pain to be like my school Principal who hit people on their behind without care, deriving pleasure from his cries, simply because it could.

And I wanted to stop it. I wanted to stop this pain, to suck it out of him, all at once, like Mother sucked the catarrh out his nostrils when he had a running nose.

I joined them on the trip to the general hospital every three weeks for a transfusion of new blood, which Mother said was to replace his dead misshapen cells. I nodded my head, although I did not understand.

He did not start school until he was six, in 1990. When the women from the church had started to pressure my Mother on why her son was not attending school like normal children and the neighbours had started to perceive something was wrong.

I saw my Brother that afternoon for the first time dressed in our uniform, the stainless white on white. And in that moment, I realised, that I had never looked at Olileanya, in the way I should have, I had never.

For six years, he had only been the one who changed things in our house, who made Mother start to weep and let her eyes sag from sleepless nights. For six years, I had only seen him in the light of a disease that left him so weak he could not play with me as I pictured my baby brother would.

I had never noticed his cocoa themed face or the scar on his left cheek from when he was five and he had tried riding a bicycle. He had started complaining of pain in his bones then and he fell off the bicycle before me or Mother could get to him. Mrs Johnson’s children had laughed, then called him “Nwanyi, woman” because he did not have the strength of a man.

I had never noticed that his smiles did not reach the corner of his lips, that when he said “Sister Adaku”, he grappled for breath, fought for it. And I realised even then that my Brother was like Mother’s treasured pieces of fine china, he was just as fragile, just as delicate.

Somehow, I hated Olileanya. I hated him for complicating our lives.

In school, I was his saviour. I was there the first time a teacher had hit him and he had fainted, standing beside the door of the sick bay and wishing my brother were a little stronger. I was there when the pains came in school and he ran to my class “Sister Adaku! Akam, my hand, Oku, fire!”

I made excuses when he had to go to the hospital twice in two months or when the pain became unbearable and he could not come to school, I told them he was visiting a relative with my parents or developed a mild fever. The teachers before long started to perceive that something was wrong and life, as if trying to save my brother’s story, granted Father a new job in Aba.

“We barely have much of a life here anymore,” Father said after he had announced it. He said too that this new job came with a house and a new car, and for once since my brother was born, Mother smiled effortlessly.

I did not tell them that I had seen the list of debts on the bedroom table-Dr Uche, Mechanic Man, School Fees, Mr Johnson, Okoro porter-Father owed even the most unlikeliest of people.

In August 1994, we moved to the new house in Aba, Ngwa precisely, driving Father’s Volvo the many miles.

Unlike our old house, this house had higher ceilings, and walls made of brick. It had faint blue curtains like fake poster colour and a backyard teeming with trees.

It was in this house that I started to notice my brother Olileanya, his ten-year-old form, watching the big colour television in the living room, sniffing the avocado plant in our backyard, sinking his hands into bottles of pills to manage his pain. In this house we got closer, we had the illusion that we could start a new life. We started to talk about books, and TV shows and music. We talked about David Copperfield and about Things Fall apart. He made me join the choir at St Augustine, our new parish “Because you have voice,” he said.

I took Olileanya to the main park to watch Onyeka Onwenu the year she had come to Aba and we had sung “Iyogogo Iyogogo Iyogogo” that night after her concert licking the mangoes we bought at the main market, and he had sung it without gasping for breath. I took him to see the adaptation of Things Fall Apart on stage at the narrow road beside the Post Office. We enjoyed it, this new life.

We played Whot on weekends when Father was away and built sand castles under the Udala tree in our yard. His said he loved Sound of Music, that their songs gave him peace and Mother made us watch it every Friday because it made my brother happy, because he started to find joy in life. And twice or thrice, Mother let him drink golden morn with me as if she felt his illness had disappeared, and he drank it, with so much joy, like when one first tastes communion.

In our new school, things were better, my brother got stronger. Father’s colleague Mr Shobowale, a westerner who migrated to the east many years ago, introduced us to Doctor Taylor; an Irish doctor they said was a specialist in ‘these things’ and I had wondered if ‘these things’ was another word for sickle cell, like perhaps a synonym.

Doctor Taylor presented new ways of dealing with sickle cell to us, new ways for my Brother to contend with it. He made us visit his clinic when pills weren’t enough for intravenous painkillers and he postulated the procedure, he called an “Infusion” conducted every two months to give strength to Olileanya’s bones, which he said were weakened to the level of a seventy-five year old woman.

And so there were fewer episodes. He had his first major crisis that lasted three weeks one Friday after school, vomiting, feverish, and writhing in pain. It lasted three weeks, and Mother never left his side.

When my brother turned twelve in 1996 and Mother said he could not go outside to play with the other boys because he was too fragile, like her treasured pieces of fine china she said. He grumbled for days and barely touched ‘his meals’. He found solace sitting, facing the wooden cupboard beside the window, watching through the swaying blue curtains the boys play outside.

He watched them play Touch and Do, watched them kick a ball, pick a fight, take off their shirts, and drink sachet water with reckless abandon. He watched them do things he could not do.

One evening, I had just come in from choir practice at our new Parish when I caught him, Mother’s china sprawled on our dining table, his head buried in them, intently, fixedly.

“What are you doing?” I asked him

He smiled, unflustered by my presence “Sister Adaku, do you know people make these things, people like you and I?” he ran his fingers across one “Beautiful patterns, they imagine them and make them”

He said one day, a few weeks ago, after the initial frustration of not joining the boys to play, he had discovered Mother’s china pieces, tucked safely in the cupboard beside the window.

He said fine china was made in three types and that he had discovered the names of Mothers pieces. He called one with detailed images printed in blue on a white background, The Blue Italian and another, multicolour with floral motifs and gold dragons Deruta’s Raffaellesco. His favourite he said was the Ming Dragon, a persimmon coloured Chinese dragon on a white background because the dragon seemed fiery and at the same time friendly like the characters from the DC comic books, he read.

He requested after that day that Mother serve his meals in this dish and he nicknamed it Ming Ding the dragon because it clattered when Mother served his meals.

I developed an interest in china then and together, my Brother and I studied the pieces for novel ones. We discovered the Royal Copenhagen’s Flora Danica themed around botanical art one Friday night after watching Sound of Music.

Later that night Mother came to my room “Your Brother will be lonely when you go the university,” she said. She was talking about my application to the University of Lagos that had been accepted.

“I won’t go for now” I said and, once more, I felt Mother smile effortlessly.

I stayed home with my brother, for five years. I was there every time he was in pain, and every week he had an infusion, I sat beside his frail body in the back seat of the Volvo. I watched his shoulders broaden and his voice deepen, watched his interests regularize to football and hip-hop songs and together we discovered new items amongst Mother’s fine china pieces. The year he turned seventeen, I found him his first girlfriend, Chinyere, a girl from our parish who loved Things Fall Apart.

“I like her” He said smiling the first day, they had met “She’s different”

He had his second major crisis exactly two months after that day, Father called it the gravest he had ever seen and the women from our church had gathered outside the hospital at Osisioma singing and squeezing Mother’s shoulder.

“Bia nuru olu anyi

Nna bia nuru olu anyi O

Onweghi mgbe ike nmadu ji akari ike chukwu

Nna bia nuru, Olisa bini Igwe bia nuru olu anyi”     

They came every day, for two weeks, to sing and recite the decades. Sometimes, they changed the song, enunciating every word with the desired effect, other times; they sang the regular and stared at the grey skies as if God was in them, strung almost inseparable from their grey rims. Hands folded, lips pouted, waiting for them to sing it enough, to cry enough before he chose to save my brother.

Olileanya died three days after Doctor Taylor said he was getting better, on an evening in January 2001, two days to his birthday. And Doctor Taylor said he had died from bleeding in the brain, a rarity even in sickle cell patients.

The day my Brother was buried, Father cried and Mother cried too. The women from our parish came, but they did not sing they did not say a word nor did Chinyere who stared blankly into space as if she saw him somewhere.

That night, I stumbled upon Mother in the dining area, her china pieces sprawled meticulously in front of her. She started to smash each one, hitting them against the brick wall and when Father awoken by the noise made to stop her, I restrained him.

She smashed the Blue Italian pieces and the Flora Danica’s, she smashed the Deruta’s Raffaellesco and the many others whose names my Brother did not live long enough for us to figure. She flung them against the brick wall sobbing, and her sobs increased when her eyes fell on the splinters on the dining room floor.

When she held Ming Ding the Dragon in her palms, she hesitated and I thought for one second that she would not ruin it, that she would keep it, somewhere special, somewhere sacred, perhaps to remember my brother, to eulogize him, because he was worth remembering.

But she flung it the hardest and when the persimmon coloured shards fell to the floor, she fell with them, sobbing, bleeding, then silence. And I knew even then, that this silence would be a long one, this new silence.

I cried in my sleep that night. I cried for my late brother, for this new silence and for Mother’s fine china pieces.

 


Caleb Somtochukwu Okereke (@CalebOkereke)is a writer and literary blogger. His works have appeared in Sun and Vanguard Newspapers, Kalahari Review, New Black Magazine, Hamilton Stone review. He is a contributor for Bella Naija whose first Novel was published by Bahati Books UK in 2016.

This story was published in collaboration with Writivism

Related country: Nigeria

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