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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Dreamscapes

An Act of God
Damilola Ajayi

It all began that evening when Papa knocked on the door, fully dressed in his police uniform save for his beret. The squeaky sound of the opening door is still vivid in my mind even after seven years. More vivid is Papa’s expression: furrows of worry etched his face. He seemed to have aged since he left for work that morning. He managed a smile that seemed to have lost all its vitality; it was a husk of his smile.

Papa limped into his room like a convalescent discharged from the hospital too early. The greetings of my siblings, who had formed a conclave around the battery-operated radio, were answered with his grunts. His grunts were groans of agony. Papa retired to bed that night whilst Nigeria played Mali in the African Nation’s Cup Tournament. Who eventually won the match, I do not remember, but I remembered that prior to that occasion, Papa was a football enthusiast who would make a best friend of his enemy if he bought a T.V set during the World Cup Tournament.
The next morning, when Mama woke me and my six siblings from our awkward sleeping positions in the parlour, I noticed. Her eyes were red from tears and her face weary, probably from lack of sleep. I concluded that she had cried throughout the night. Whilst my siblings hustled amongst other children of the barracks at the only functional tap for drawing water in readiness for school, I walked back into the kitchen.
"Mama, what is the matter?" I asked.
Mama burst into tears and from within her sobs, I caught figments that summed to the reality of Papa dismissal from the police force.

A clearer picture unveiled later that evening when three uniformed policemen, presumably Papa’s friends, walked into our parlour looking furious and armed.
"The commissioner is stupid! Who does he bloody think he is?" one asked.
"After all what you did is no big deal, we all do it, don’t we?" another said looking up at his colleagues as if seeking support.

They barked in our sitting-room, promising and wishing like slothful politicians, making louder noise than the rifles strapped to their shoulders. After pledging their allegiance and reiterating ‘we would get to the root of this matter!’ and ‘what rubbish!’ they shuffled their feet and scurried off.

They returned two weeks later to evict us from our apartment in the barracks accompanied with their superiors.
We moved into a one room apartment, the cheapest money could rent. Most of our belongings—our chairs, furniture, dismantled wooden bed—scattered the entrance of our room in the backyard of our landlord. Our new house, a shack, stood out like a detached kitchen, like our landlord’s afterthought or his bricklayer’s bonus. Even though it was not fully completed—it lacked asbestos, plastering, paint, in that order of importance—it served as shelter for our seven-membered family.

Mama’s rickety sewing machine became our family’s sole source of livelihood. Every night, Mama would stay late at the shop, pedalling away with sartorial fury, just to make ends meet. She even laid off her paid assistant. She asked me and Shewa, my elder sister, to help her out in the shop with odds and ends.
But Shewa wouldn’t! Shewa was this disillusioned school leaver who had become a regular customer of the matriculation exams. Her sole interest was modelling. That was all she could think about: her shiny face on billboards and her body hugging tight to haute couture somewhere in Paris or Milan.

Sometimes when we are home alone, she would strip into her underwear and walk around the room like our neighbour’s cat, staring blankly at the room’s contents as if they were fashion critics. She would pause in the middle of the crammed room and place her fingers on her waist, then swiftly turn, wiggling her buttocks to accompany her footfalls.

I would look at my sister and feel God did me grave injustice. Though she was three years older, she had it all: an unblemished skin, a figure like an hourglass, a stature of a gazelle. I had a pimple-ridden face, painful lumps for breasts, my buttocks stood flat like a chop board and I had three years to hope that I became her.

When Mama leaves us both at the shop to attend to her richer customers at their houses, Shewa would beg me to follow her to Oga Memory’s studio. Oga memory was the photographer who lived a street away from Mama’s shop. Sometimes I would accompany her for a selfish reason: to watch home video on his T.V set. He would offer us a bottle of Coke and roasted groundnuts which we shared and he would take pictures of Shewa in garish outfits hugging tight to her body.

Whilst flashing away with his fading black Minolta, he would smile gleefully and declare loudly to Shewa, smile frozen, that he would make her famous.

He did make her famous, though not in terms of spotlight and glittering walkways: He put her in the family way.
"Who is responsible?" Mama questioned amid tears, sitting by her sewing machine which had become faulty, reducing Mama’s scope of work to just threading and needling up buttons. The lump sum she had managed to save had bought Shewa’s Jamb form the week before the machine developed a fault.

Mama and a wailing Shewa walked to Oga Memory and caught him in the very act with another local girl, right there in his studio. Mama did not need any more confirmation; perhaps she had thought Shewa involved herself with a man man enough to own up to his responsibility of both mother and foetus. Already several kids scampered our street bearing unmistakable resemblance with Oga memory. Mama was distraught.

Papa was mad that evening. His eyes were red with anger; his sallow skin livid with disappointment. But he seemed to have lost his will to fight—for anything. He seethed right there in the room, Shewa on her knees, sobbing at his feet, he listening to her as if her snivelling was absolution.

Things got from bad to worse when Mama got a quit notice at the shop. Her fat landlady marched into the shop, hands like lamb chops and face florid with excess mascara. All Mamas’ pleas were void; she said she has had it: seven months debt was how far she could go.

That evening, a bearded man wearing a brown celestial gown knocked on our door. His beards were red with soup and his feet bare. He demanded to see my parents. Mama freed the only chair in our room of cloths and he sat in it.
Stylishly eavesdropping outside, I heard him begin with a vision he saw, that Papa’s problem was a ploy of the enemy and they would not stop till they took his life. I heard Mama shriek and fingers snapped, I imagined over Mama’s head as she said God forbid!

The prophet said the only solution was for our family to embark on a three day’s fasting and prayer at his church two streets away. Mama ensured that I and my siblings fasted. The only person who did not yield to the prophet’s instructions was Papa. Papa had degenerated from an occasional church goer to an atheist.

Sometimes, I felt God was punishing my family, especially Papa for not going to church. Papa only goes to church for ceremonies like wedding and burial, he never paid his tithes, even when we, the children, dressed and headed out to church, sometimes he refused us offering money. I remembered the bible story of Egypt and the plagues; and I felt that God was sending plagues to my family.

Papa worked as casual labour in the day and drank at nights, showing up very meagre sums that would not brush off most of our family’s expenses. Papa rarely smiled and seemed to be agitated especially whenever Shewa was in the house, her belly bloated with the "bastard child", Papa’s name for her unborn baby.

Tears became a familial feature; tears of all kind: of hunger, of shame, of disappointment, of boredom, of hopelessness, of frustration. Tears shed at different intervals by different Individuals. Mama would cry hers in the sitting room while threading her needle, her sobs accentuated when she stares at her defunct Singer machine. Shewa would cry when she sees her mates going for lessons; she would cry again when Papa calls her unborn child a bastard; she would cry again when all her abortive methods proved abortive. I would cry when I returned late from Junior WAEC extension classes to find out that my siblings had devoured my share of Garri. I would cry again when I approached Papa, reeking of paraga(local gin), for lesson money and he would shout me down, bunching me and Shewa as good-for-nothing children. I would cry...

Fortune revisited my family one evening. Mama was in the parlour sewing in buttons on an old shirt, Papa was away on one of his drinking binge, and I lay on the threadbare rug straining my eyes to read a passage, an assignment. Shewa was sitting beside Mama, hands folded below her bulging belly.
A knock.
Mama instinctively stood up, grabbing the clothes she had piled to sew, she hid under the bed and waved her hands at me: her signal that she wasn’t at home, if it happened to be one of her creditors.

It happened to be Mama’s customer, one of the madams whom Mama goes to meet at her home. A light skin woman, dressed in an Ankara sewn by Mama. Mama rose from her awkward position and stifled a yawn. I marvelled at her theatrics, her statement that the woman should have just sent for her instead of bothering to come down. I knew the madam was doing Mama a favour: where would Mama get the transport money?

The madam came with a big contract; she wanted to make Mama the official tailor of the school uniform of a school she had established. A quick yes, Mama muttered and she handed a bulky envelope to Mama. We waited for the woman to leave before rejoicing ensued.

The week after, Papa returned home with a smile, his smile, another rare occurrence. Papa had been shortlisted as one of officials at a private security firm. The job paid even more than his appointment with police.

Amidst our rejoicing over Papa’s new job, Shewa’s water broke. We rushed her to the hospital, waiting impatiently outside the labour theatre, sometimes peeping to know the status quo.

Shewa was delivered of a baby boy, to joy of everybody including Papa. Papa was so glad that he sponsored an elaborate naming ceremony where his three police friends drank themselves to stupor; the fat shop landlady eat to her fill and even went with leftovers she claimed was for her dogs.

Papa named shewa’s son, Boluwatife, which meant it is how God wants it. I thought the name was apt, my family’s travails was entirely an act of God.

Later that evening, I knelt beside an exhausted Papa and requested my lesson money. He scrutinized me with blood-shot eyes. For a second, I feared his response but then I looked at his face and I saw the smile, his smile.
Damilola Ajayi September 2009

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