What if it was a ruse, and he was alive? What if he appeared as soon as she stepped out of the car, his face filled with rage and disappointment? Had he not warned her against stepping into his house? That he was dead and buried did nothing to reduce the anxiety that Hafsat felt. Dead at seventy-eight, survived by one wife, fifteen children, and fifty grandchildren, he had lived through the death of three wives, five children and two grandchildren. Perhaps she should return home, after all Mama Ladi, her step-grandmother, who she was indifferent about was the only one left in the house. Hafsat took in deep breaths, and tried to ignore the amused look on the driver’s face through the rear-view mirror, before finally stepping out of the car. Was she dressed right? A black abaya for a condolence visit was so cliché. The compound looked unexpectedly placid. Not a single soul in sight. Her eyes found the swing set that carried some of her fondest childhood memories. No major change, still the same maroon colour with specks of black marks caused by rust splattered all over. The once vibrant grass surrounding the swing set looked brown, frail and thirsty. Her last conversation with Kaka, five years ago, replayed in her mind.
His voice requesting for her immediate presence sounded edgy and irritated. Hafsat knew what the topic would be, but he was her grandfather, her Kaka, surely, he would support her decision. She found him seated on his favourite leather brown armchair. His favourite story about her depicted her excitement as a six-year-old, figuring out that pushing down the lever on the lower right side of the chair produced a space for her legs. He was holding a book and flipping through the pages with aggression. Even while seated his figure towered. Due to his height, he was accustomed to bending to go through doors. Hafsat, named after his mother, was his favourite grandchild. He referred to her as Mama, never as Hafsat.
She knelt down to greet him, before moving closer on the cream rug to be beside him. He asked her to move and position herself in front of him, then he brought down his glasses, resting them on his nose. He said nothing, just observing her like a difficult exam question. Hafsat gazed up for just a second, but she did not like what she saw. His eyebrows inched closer, his nostrils were enlarging and reducing in size, his fingers impatiently tapped his knees.
‘What am I hearing, Mama? Your in-laws were here yesterday.’
‘I am tired Kaka. He treats me like a maid. Everything I do becomes an issue. When he goes out at night with his friends, he comes back stinking of alcohol, and when I shout at him he…’
‘What? You shout at your husband?’
‘Kaka he hits me sometimes. I have a daughter and a son. I will not be doing justice to them by staying.’
‘Your in-laws have accused your work of being the main reason behind your issues with Aminu. Quit to spend more time with him, take care of your home, Mama. Please.’
‘Kaka just because he stays at home does not mean that I should.’
‘Does he not give you money?’
‘Then what is it?’
‘Before we got married, he promised me that he would find a job. He does not even try to do so.’
‘His father is rich; he does not need to work.’
‘Haba Kaka, are you really saying this?’
‘Mama, men are different. Stress must be why he drinks.’
At that point, Hafsat realised that arguing was futile.
‘You have nothing to say?’
‘Kaka, I am leaving. If he refuses to grant the divorce, I will head to the court. I…’
‘Enough!’ he stood up violently, flinging the book previously on his lap to the farthest end of the room. ‘No divorce has ever occurred within my lineage and it will definitely not begin with you!’
‘Kayi hakuri, I am sorry, but I have made my decision.’
‘What about your children? You will deprive them of their father’s presence in their lives?’
‘I am doing this for my kids. Ummi will not grow up thinking it is okay for her husband to hit her, Sadiq will not grow up thinking it is okay to hit his wife.’
‘This generation is so intolerant. My mother’s patience with my father was legendary. But what happened at the end? He came back to her, and she won.’
‘She did not win Kaka. She probably had nowhere to go.’
‘How dare you? Get up now! Leave! Hafsat if you go ahead with this divorce, never come back here!’
It was the first time that he referred to her first name, at least to her face. Hafsat left her husband, took her kids, and moved to Abuja. She became an exhibition at family occasions. Some pointed at her without a care if she noticed or not. Eventually the stares became too much and declining invitations turned into a hobby. Her father was not willing to reason with Kaka,
‘He is old Hafsat, let me part this world in peace with my father please,’ he pleaded.
Here she was to console Mama Ladi, the fourth wife, a short-tempered mini-sized woman who compensated for her size with a sharp tongue, not afraid to lash at anyone that crossed her. When Hafsat entered the house, she found a teenage girl sweeping the main living room. The girl made a move to go inside to inform Mama Ladi but Hafsat assured her that she knew the way. She walked to Mama Ladi’s room, noticing the writings on the white walls scribbled by children, grandchildren, and probably great grandchildren. Hafsat could visualise herself eating on the wide silver tray with her siblings and cousins, running around looking for where to hide when they played hide and seek, and when they had to hide from their parents to avoid going home.
‘Hafsat is that you?’ Mama Ladi asked.
She was seated on her bed, her legs tucked underneath a plain brown duvet cover, watching the television attached to the wall. Her room had not changed, the metal bed with long legs with enough space for suitcases, carton boxes and so much more was still there. Mama Ladi had a wooden stool to help her climb up and down the bed. Stacks of Hausa novels were on the bedside table beside medicine bottles and a silver torchlight. Her face looked vastly different from what Hafsat remembered, she was smiling, a smile that warmed her face. Hafsat noted that Mama Ladi’s neck had begun to sag. Her hair, a mix of brown and grey was exposed and unbraided.
‘Why are you staring all over the place? Come and have a seat. Grab the rug from behind the fridge. Yes, that one, you can spread it on the floor in front of me. Let me see you clearly.’
‘Ina wuni Mama Ladi?’ Hafsat knelt to greet her.
‘Lafiya Hafsat, I am happy to see you.’
‘I am so sorry for your loss, may his soul rest in peace.’
‘Ameen, Ameen. I regret that you never reconciled. He was such a stubborn man.’
None of Kaka’s wives had the guts to say a word against him. Death changed things.
‘I was proud of you. I am sorry that I never let you know.’
‘Proud Mama Ladi?’
‘I was also jealous to be honest. You did what I could never do.’
‘What? Be careful, please, I do not want your eyes to fall down. Yes, jealous. My marriage plans involved another man, then your grandfather came along with his wealth, and my father agreed. Besides, I wanted to continue studying too. I threatened to run away, but my father threatened to divorce my mother, you can imagine how it was in those days. I obeyed.’ Mama Ladi’s eyes, tired due to a forced old age, sparkled and dimmed almost at once with thoughts of what could have been.
‘I am sorry to hear that.’
‘Why? It was not your fault. I never had a single day of joy with your grandfather, not even one. Oh, did you hear about your cousin Sani?’
‘That he divorced his wife? Yes, I did.’
‘Hmm imagine, the woman had been thrashing him whenever a disagreement occurred. Too bothered by what people would say, he preferred to suffer in silence. He got the courage after you divorced your husband.’
‘How did Kaka react?’
‘Toh, we hid it from him.’
‘I am surprised that gossip did not reach him.’
‘My dear, we were all waiting for him to erupt. I think prayer protected us all.’
Hafsat felt certain that Kaka had heard. It was impossible for such important news to bypass him. Perhaps he could not find the energy to disown another grandchild. Or he did not want to acknowledge the reason behind the divorce.
‘Whose life is it anyway? Why do we have a culture where others believe they have a right to decide another person’s life? Besides, how is work? I used to sneak into my room every night at seven pm to watch your show. I guess I don’t have to sneak anymore.’
Hafsat laughed then quickly apologized for doing so.
‘You look beautiful when you are interviewing your guests. You know there was a time that I wanted to be an actress.’
‘Are you that surprised?’
‘Not at all Mama Ladi, I just did not expect you to mention acting. It is never too late. I have friends in the business.’
‘But what about your kids?’
‘I lived for them, let me live for myself now. This girl, stop laughing. I am serious. One day you can interview me on your show too.’
‘Definitely. Sorry to intrude, but how come the house is so empty?’
‘I sent them away. Haba, they were just filling this house. I wanted peace. Making us pamper them with food when it should be the other way around. No, they had to go for my peace.’
Hafsat smiled, picturing Mama Ladi sending people out of the house.
‘Hafsat, do you have a suitor?’
‘Eh…Yes, I do, but I have not decided.’
‘Yes, no need to rush. But I hope he is good looking. That was the one thing that made it easier for me to live in this house.’
‘Yes, he is.’
‘This girl, this is like the tenth time you are laughing at me. Do not mind people; looks are important.’
‘You are right, Mama Ladi.’
‘Please do not forget about my acting. But I will not dance fa! They look so silly.’
‘Haba no way, I will make sure that they do not make you dance.’
‘Stop laughing at me Hafsat.’
‘Sorry Mama Ladi, I have stopped.’
Rabi’atu Yakubu is a fiction writer based in Abuja. Her short stories have appeared in AFREADA, The Kalahari Review, The Writers Café Magazine and Nantygreens.
Related country: Nigeria