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Borrowed Smile: A Short Story by Chika Unigwe


It is not possible to describe it if you have never been there. But you know it because you have lived there. It is what you will call a ghetto neighbourhood. Metal sheets nailed together in a row. The metal is rusty and dark. Like the lives lived in them. They look crass and rough, like the work-abused knuckles of Sunday. Sunday is the master-of-all trades of the area. He washes. He cleans. He scrubs. People say he has half a brain. Makes you wonder if his skull is lop-sided as a result, you know, a bit like a weighing scale with too much weight on one side and nothing at all on the other. It does not look like that from the outside though. His head is round with a bush of thick, black hair. His half a brain does not stop people from contracting him for the chores they want to escape doing. It certainly does not stop him from making a baby who looks very much like him. Nobody knows who the mother of the baby is. They say Sunday just turned up one day with a bundle of rags and bones. Women like to tell how they nurse the baby to health. How Udo’s mother who has just had a new baby also breast-feeds the new baby, a baby at each breast.

He is a hungry baby
A greedy baby
Grabs the nipple in his mouth and would not let go
Sucks like he has never seen food
Probably never has. Poor baby
Who is the mother anyway?
Who would sleep with Sunday with half a brain?
Tufia! Some women will sleep with anything, Sunday kwa!
Poor beautiful baby

For Sunday with the half brain has a beautiful baby boy with dimpled cheeks and fat, fat thighs. And all the mothers love to take care of him. They watch him thrash his arms and laugh with pleasure as he struggles to take his first steps, waddling on two feet like a giant crippled pigeon. And Sunday says that one day he will fly. Fly above the metal boxes in which you eke out your existence. He says he will fly beyond the skies.

Your father says it is not a life you live there. Can not be for lives are full and filling. Soothing. Like a cup of ice-cold water on a hot dry day. But what you have is a struggle to live. To wake up each morning and walk out into the stench of urine mixed with sand.

You want to fly like Sunday says his baby will. To fly above the shanty. To merge with the clouds. To escape into a life that is full. And filling. Like coca-cola after a loaf of bread.

That is what brings you to Antwerp.

One day when you are sixteen and curved in all the right places, a man turns up. He has a moustache above his full brown lips and patent leather shoes. Shoes that look out of place in your neighbourhood. His clothes are new. They have that crispy look of newness. Not like the washed ones you are used to seeing around. He stands out like a festive masquerade appearing on an ordinary day. He tells you that he has been seeing you around and wants to know you better. You want to know him better too. To smell the shoes and fuel your longing for a life. You have never smelt patent leather shoes before. You want to touch his moustache and have him touch you.

His name is Bob. Short and sweet, he tells you. Just like him. The short you can see. The sweet, you are yet to find out.

He tells you of places close to the sky. Way beyond this environment riddled with the smell of dead and decaying things: rats. Mice. Cockroaches. Dogs. Cats. Pungent smells rolling into each other. Places with names you have heard. And many more with names you have never dreamed of. Names you cannot roll on your tongue.

He tells you those places have no smell. At least no bad smell. No pool of urine stagnating outside your door. No dog feaces forming a mound outside your little window. No worms wriggling in excitement on the waste.

He calls you his little nymph. You have never heard that word. Do not know what it means. But you like the way it sounds coming from his lips. Falling like drops of rain after a really harsh dry season. The type of dry season farmers consider a curse. Little Nymph!

He says he will take you anywhere you want to go as he cradles your breasts, like they were newly born twins. He kisses your ears and tells you to choose. Antwerp. Brussels. Milan. Madrid. Barcelona. Amsterdam. Berlin. Frankfurt. The world is your oyster. All you have to do is say where. And he will make sure you get there.

You do not know where Antwerp is. Or Brussels. You know his shoes come from Milan and have a huge “Made in Italy” printed underneath them. The other cities do not mean anything to you. You have never left Enugu where you grew up. How can you choose if you do not know one from the other? They all sound like the bar of chocolate you had once. Sweet. Soft. Chocolatey. You close your eyes and stick a pin on a sheet of paper with the names scrawled in his lazy handwriting on it. The metal pin picks out your destiny. Fate decides for you: Antwerp. The city with the Cathedral, he says. You will like it. You will see. Loads of Africans. You won’t miss home, he hisses in your ear as he nibbles on a lobe. But you do want to miss home. You want nothing to remind you of where you are leaving. Nothing to remind you of the dirt, the rust and the death. You want to forget and forge new memories for yourself.

“I will send you to school” he whispers like he were saying a prayer. Easy, just like that. He snaps his fingers to show how easy. You look into his eyes, the colour of slightly bleached oil, and you do not want to question how you will enter school with no prior education. Your father is too poor to afford anything. Least of all school. For a mere girl. If he had a boy, maybe.

When your father, balding and frail and disappearing forbids you to go, you tell him you do not want to stay and disappear like him. You see his eyes shut in pain as if a bright sunlight has suddenly hit them. But you do not care. And when your mother, her eyes shedding tears like they have an excess reservoir of it, holds on to you and begs you not to break her heart ,you push her away and set out into the dark to your freedom. Her voice chases you in that darkness:

You don’t know who he is, kedu onye obu?
If he loves you, he should marry you
He should pay your bride price
Show he is serious
We do not know his family

You do not look back as you make your way to Bob’s house from where you will leave the next day to Belgium. You have your brand new passport with a smiling picture of you in your handbag. You bring out the passport and open the page to where the visa is stamped. You put your nose to it and inhale. It smells of dreams about to be born. It is an intoxicating smell and makes you float.

You leave Ikeja airport on one of the hottest nights of the year. Bob says that kind of heat is enough to bake bread in. Your white T-Shirt announcing boldly that you are “Fantastic” plasters itself on your body. Your laps itch from sweat and makes you regret your decision to wear your brand new Jeans trousers. Sweat dribbles down the sides of your face and you regularly dab at them with your white scented handkerchief, one of the numerous presents you have been given by Bob. You are happy when it is time to board the plane and you stride in smartly, like a hospital matron. The cool air of the plane hits you and dries the sweat. All through the six hour flight on Sabena, your heart does an atilogwu dance, somersaulting over and over again. It keeps you from sleeping. It is not like you want to sleep anyway; you do not want to miss any part of your journey.

Antwerp is cold. And rainy. And old. Like a great grand mother. Some parts look like they have aged gracefully. Some parts look like they have aged harshly. Like they have led a hard life. It is to one of those that Bob takes you. An apartment with windows painted a garish green and a door handle that looks worn out from being constantly called upon. It squeaks in anguish when someone lets you into an over-crowded room with red walls glaring at you. There is a brand new leather settee, three mis-matched chairs with metal legs and a huge wooden stool with carved elephant legs. When you comment on it, your host, a burly man called Simon barks, Everybody wants to know about that chair. All the white people, they always asking about it. Offering money, plenty of money. But me, I refuse to sell” You wonder why he is angry but you soon learn that that is the way he talks. You wonder if he was born that way. With an angry bark for a voice.

Your education starts earlier than you expect. Bob is right. You can go to school. He just does not tell you what sort of school. And what you are expected to learn. To stand in underwear barely covering your essentials in front of a window, a smile searing your face while you glower inside, your lips red like fire.

At first, you are angry with Bob. But the anger dissipates when he leaves you without food for a second day ( you feel your intestines twisting in hunger). The anger transforms itself to an emptiness which you just want to fill. You ask yourself what other choices you have anyway, you do not want to go back to the life you had in Nigeria. Besides, Bob has your passport, he takes it from you as soon as you have gone through immigrations.

The first night you work, you are shy but soon, you learn to trash that shyness and let it mildew. In time, you learn to be different things to different men. A slave. A mistress. A dog. To listen to those who want to talk. The man whose wife is a bitch, he should never have married her. The one who simply likes the feel of a black woman’s body. His wife is too milky and he likes to see the contrast between the insides of his legs and the outsides of yours. Another who simply wants to explore the myth of the black woman being a tiger in bed. He asks you to growl and even though you feel foolish, you oblige him and he gives you a huge tip.

You are a hit with the clients and you make money. More money than you had ever dreamed possible for one person to own. You make enough for Bob to buy more patent leather shoes and enough for you to start saving. You work for seven years before you get the courage to go home.

You arrive, a picture of success. A blue skirt suit. Black high heel shoes. A black leather bag swaying at your side like a top model doing the cat walk. The neighbourhood turns out to welcome you with shrieks and songs. Children shove each other out of the way, offering to carry your three Samsonite suitcases as they tumble out of the cab.

Sister, na me go carry am oo
Sister, look, I strong well well
Sister, na me come first. No mind all dis oda people
Sister, see me, na me dey help your mama when she go market
Sister, I am your nwanne, we share the same blood.

You smile benevolently. Ostentatiously count some cash into the cab driver’s waiting palms and lead your troop of acolytes into your parents’ one room house where your father waits, dignified. Frailer, balder, settled in his chair like a king on his throne. He barely gives you a nod. Not forgiving you for leaving home. Your mother stands, uncertain, beside him, her eyes taking all of you in. Her eyes shift from you to your father and back to you again. You hand out money to the little children and allow yourself to be engulfed in your mother’s arms as she eventually totters towards you like a drunk, her hands held out in front of her. She lets out a little cry and holds you tight against her. Her happiness engulfs you and presses your nose into the side of her neck.

You stay at home for two weeks complaining about all the usual things that people who come back from overseas complain of: the weather. Too hot. The water, not safe. The power supply, unstable. The mosquitoes, vicious.

Neighbours you remember and those you cannot recall file in to see you, reminding you of what good friends you always have been, their eyes, greedy gulping in your clothes, their eager hands touching the fabric, their faces shiny with sweat and anticipation. They want to touch you, get a feel of paradise through you. They ask you how life is abroad and you serve them stories to satisfy their famished ears.

Sunday with the half a brain comes too, dragging behind him, his beautiful baby who is no longer a baby and who is no longer so beautiful, he is so thin you fear the slightest gust of wind will blow him away like a loose sheet of paper.

You hand out manna, a piece of clothing here, some money there. Your mother hovers around you like a body-guard to ensure you do not give out too much. When you bring out a huge bundle of notes in mint condition to give to an old neigbour who complains that he has been out of a job for three years and has some trouble feeding his family, your mother touches your arm. It is a slight touch, her fingers barely touch you, but it is enough to let you know that she considers the gift extravagant. You divide the bundle into two and give the disappointed neighbour one half of it. He says thank you, nevertheless but his eyes shoot a stern look at your mother. She ignores him and hisses something about ungrateful people. That night your mother warns you about giving out too much money, If you give out too much, this house will be full of people tomorrow with their various complaints. You have a family too, do not forget that. Your father and I need money as well. I cannot remember the last time I bought a new wrapper. Your father hardly gets any customer these days, you have seen so for yourself. “You tell her that you will be more careful, and that of course she must go out the very next day and buy herself some new wrappers, you have enough money to pay for her. She throws her hands in the air and does a dance of happiness.

You suffuse your parent’s one-room house with happiness but your father remains unmoved. He hardly says a word to you. When you complain to your mother, she tells you not to worry, he will come around sooner or later. He is a man and he has his pride she tells you and asks you to give him time.

Your father ultimately relents and forgives you after you squeeze into his balled up fists, more money than he has ever held in his entire life working as a cobbler. You promise him a new house. A decent house with four rooms and a colour television. You garnish that promise with that of a new car. You watch his smile grow wider with each promise you make. His eyes grows brighter, sparkling like stars in a clear sky. You know in his head, he is already living in his new house with the television and a garage with a car, probably in GRA. Or Independence Layout. Faraway from the slums of Obiagu. A life removed from his little shed outside the house where he sits in front of a wooden table waiting for his dwindling customers to trickle in. He will be an oga, the master of a duplex with four rooms, all carpeted. Your mother will prepare her dishes in a kitchen the size of their present house, on a gas fire, not a kerosene stove. Your father will never have to work again as you have promised him a monthly allowance.

You see that your parents do not really believe that you are a typist in some big firm. Sometimes, you catch your mother’s eyes following you like a loyal dog around the house. You are sure they can guess what it is you actually do from the fatigued look your body has acquired over the years, the tired sway your waist involuntarily displays. Yet, you know that they are too scared to ask what you really do.

Soon, your two weeks are up and it is time to go. As the cab that takes you to the airport drives off, you wave regally from your seat at the back and smile with the borrowed smile.

Chika Unigwe
Chika Unigwe
Chika Unigwe is the author of the widely acclaimed novel, 'On Black Sisters’ Street' and winner of the 2012 Nigeria Prize for Literature.


  1. Hello Chika, my name is Lulu. I just want let you know that I admire you. I’ve read teardrops and I enjoyed best of all, your poem titled Each Moment. I am a budding writer and am inspired by you. Wish you all the very best!

  2. This is wonderfull. A beautiful tale, trully told without the ever – boring moralizing. Unigwe is indeed going places.
    Emmanuel Onyedi Wingate
    Dept of Law, UNEC. (Winner:ANAImo Children’s Litreature Prize 2005).

  3. Hello Chika, I enjoyed reading a borrowed smile. keep writing and pleasing with your colorful descriptions of a hard life

  4. This is really good.You have mastered an art where others dare to tread i.e writing in the second person.I’m talking a wild guess that The Phoenix came from this?Cheers.

  5. I read because someone did. Wondered why they admired what was written so long ago…
    I now appreciate the reason: the sad tail of the story sweeps the reader’s mind with the grave voice of a jocular funeral.

  6. Reading this in 2023. Phew!!
    Beautifully written. I am sure Ms Unigwe’s writing has grown so much in the last couple of years.

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