International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Dreamscapes
Act of God
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 Papas 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
Nations 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 Papas friends, walked into our parlour looking furious
"The commissioner is stupid! Who does he bloody think he is?"
"After all what you did is no big deal, we all do it, dont
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 belongingsour chairs, furniture, dismantled wooden bedscattered
the entrance of our room in the backyard of our landlord. Our new house,
a shack, stood out like a detached kitchen, like our landlords
afterthought or his bricklayers bonus. Even though it was not
fully completedit lacked asbestos, plastering, paint, in that
order of importanceit served as shelter for our seven-membered
Mamas rickety sewing machine became our familys 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 wouldnt! 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 neighbours cat, staring blankly
at the rooms 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 Memorys
studio. Oga memory was the photographer who lived a street away from
Mamas 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 Mamas
scope of work to just threading and needling up buttons. The lump sum
she had managed to save had bought Shewas 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 fightfor anything. He seethed right there in the room, Shewa
on her knees, sobbing at his feet, he listening to her as if her snivelling
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 Papas 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 Mamas head as she said God forbid!
The prophet said the only solution was for our family to embark on a
three days 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 prophets 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 familys
expenses. Papa rarely smiled and seemed to be agitated especially whenever
Shewa was in the house, her belly bloated with the "bastard child",
Papas 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
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
wasnt at home, if it happened to be one of her creditors.
It happened to be Mamas 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
Amidst our rejoicing over Papas new job, Shewas 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
Papa named shewas son, Boluwatife, which meant it is how God wants
it. I thought the name was apt, my familys 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,
Damilola Ajayi September 2009
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