Fiction

Dearest Jumi: Fiction by Lily-Anne Longjohn

Dearest Jumi,

Maybe there is something wrong with me, or maybe there isn’t. But I can never be too sure, you see. It’s always the little this’s and that’s that come up every now and then. But then again, I can never be too sure of anything. Not of what I do, if it is the right thing, or what I think, if I am thinking right, or anything really.

This is in no way new to me, in all honesty. It has always been ‘how it is’ and ‘life as I know it’ for the longest time. But if I want to properly put a timeline to this, I would say it started that day, when I was eight. I could put my whole life in two stacks: one on my left hand and the other on my right. I would call the one on my left ‘before it’ while the one on my right would be called ‘after it’. My life on each stack was so different from each other. So different that sometimes I just sit and ask myself what happened, or how everything changed so much. Life on the left stack and life on the right seemed like opposite sides of the same coin, each side with a different face. That was exactly as I should put it; each side of my life had a different face. Now, enough of my ranting. I read somewhere that a good way to avoid telling a story, is by telling another story. So, I give up the dilly-dallying.

And, here is my story.

It started one day, when I was eight. But in all honesty, it had started so long ago; it was just that my small brown happy-go-lucky-girl eyes could not see the early shoots before the main fruit. I could not see past my nose, especially for something like that. So, yes, it had been going on, and I didn’t see it. But the signs were everywhere. Our late school fees, resulting in Aunty Joy’s asides when Biggy took my siblings and I to school. Or was it the times when Cici would go out and come home late at night and rant to Biggy when she thought we were asleep. Now I ask myself, how I could have missed the times when he and Cici would argue far into the night, before they would suddenly stop arguing and instead we would hear an almost gentle struggle thereafter. The biggest sign of all was when he would go for days, sometimes weeks, or even months before he would come home. Of course Cici would be miserable all that time, but still carry on as if he didn’t matter. Until the day he graced our house with his presence. Our house was not a small one, neither was it big. It had a big bedroom, an even bigger living room, a medium sized kitchen that made me feel like I was in a box. And the bathroom and toilets were even smaller, like match boxes, rectangular and small.

I always got to hear everything, and see everything from my two vantage points. One was the place I slept: on a raffia mat, that was now coming apart like a badly sown garment stationed in the bedroom. Unfortunately for my mat, the only bad thing about it was my unfortunately constant showers that left it drenched in foul smelling dark yellowish liquid for several hours every day. My second vantage point was behind the big velvety cushion in the living room, where I did my oh-so-many readings and pretend siestas. I saw it all and heard it all, yet, I was blind, and deaf to all, until that day.

I had woken up in the morning, that morning, and noticed that my mat did not smell; neither did my oversized green-turned-grey T-shirt. Even my yellow-turned-white pant felt dry to the touch. I could feel my sleeping wrapper, a hand-me-down from Cici crisp like paper notes over my body. And then it dawned on me: it hadn’t happened this night. I started to hum a tune in my head as I stood up straight, stretched my back and rubbed my eyes before I folded my wrapper the way Cici had taught me, into a neat rectangle-ish-square. I folded my mat into a roll and shoved it under the bed. As I did that, my hand touched something hard – like wood – and tall like a mango tree. I smiled, as memories of the romance between my body and that tall thing flashed before my mind’s eye. But not today, there would be no such romance. Just then, a sound reached my ear as I started towards the wardrobe where my sleeping wrapper always went. It was a voice actually, and I couldn’t believe it was his. Until I heard other voices, laughing with the first voice.

I half pushed, half shoved the wrapper into the wardrobe and closed the door as an afterthought, before following the laughter to its source. I walked fast, like a lion going for its prey until I reached the living room. There he was sat, on his favourite sofa, the small one that was just by the long silver-turned-black TV stand with its class components. Jojo, my only brother was sitting on his lap, and talking while Oma, my younger sister was resting on the arm of the chair. I stood by the door, and took in his head, with short jet black hair on it, before Oma saw me.

“Come, and say good morning to Daddy.” she said, beckoning to me.

With a sigh, which I heaved in my head, I walked over to him. He was now looking in my direction and smiling. His smile, that made the skin of his forehead fold to form many layers and his skin that looked like fresh honey, or should I say hot chocolate, not that those two were very much alike, seemed to glow.

“Good morning Daddy,” I said, standing there like a log of wood that had being glued to the ground. My mouth as well, it seemed, had been glued shut, as the many words that jumped around the maze that was my mind couldn’t find a way to come out. So I moved to the side and touched Jojo’s back. He turned to me and smiled, just the way Daddy had smiled. He turned back to Daddy and said.

“Will you stay with us, Daddy? Or will you go again, and then we will not see you?”

Daddy was saying something to Jojo and Oma, but I couldn’t hear it, as Cici’s voice suddenly filled the room, like a loud speaker had been turned on.

“Oya, you people should go and brush your teeth. Biggy is making breakfast and I don’t want it to be cold.”

“Ooooooooohooooo.” Oma drawled as she started out of the room. I drawled as well, but only in my head.

“Good morning Mummy.” Jojo said as he came past Cici by the small door frame. She patted his head and he giggled as he went with me to get our toothbrushes. We brushed and had our breakfast of ripe plantain cut into cute circles and fried to a browny finish with scrambled eggs. By the time we finished eating and going to have our bath and getting dressed, with Biggy’s help, it seemed like a lifetime later. We came out to the living room, and found Daddy there, reading a copy of the Punch newspaper, with its white and black paper and print. I edged closer to him as I sat down, and he took out a page from the centre of the pile and handed it to me. I said thank you and moved over to the back of the big sofa and started to read it. I could hear Oma and Jojo talking to Daddy, and he talking back to them.

Sometimes I wondered why I could never do that. I mean talk, to him. I always had so much I wanted to ask him, or say to him, but I never said it. But I was content, because sometimes when he looked at me, he seemed to know what I wanted to ask. He would either give it to me, or tell me about it.

So I stayed there, close to him, reading the newspaper until I found the page with the cross word puzzle on it. My face lighting up as if a bulb had just been switched on, I went to him, and said.

“I saw the crossword.”

“Yes, my daughter. I left it for you.”

I smiled, a toothless smile, and stretched out my hand as he gave me a blue bic biro. I went back and started on my puzzle and did it until Biggy came and said we were going to church. Church for us was a big issue. Biggy and Cici liked going to church, and they could go to the ends of the earth to find a church where God would come down and bless us. So we went. We all said our ‘bye-bye daddys’ in cheery voices, and I asked myself if he would be here when we got back. I wanted to ask him that, but I didn’t. Oma asked him, instead.

“I will be here, waiting for you,” he said to us all as we walked out the front door. In church that day, I couldn’t hear a thing. Daddy’s words kept playing in my head as I sat on one of the wooden benches listening to Pastor Kalu, though I wasn’t actually listening. Once church ended, Biggy came and took us home. My chatty playful Oma was even chattier (if there was such a word) today. She said hello to everyone we saw and they smiled at her, and some of them added “fine girl” at the back of the reply. As for Jojo, he didn’t say anything. He kept looking at me and smiling, and many times accidentally hitting me with his leg, so that I would look at him and smile back. Biggy too, seemed a bit less frowny and angry today. She smiled at the people that called Oma “fine gal”, especially the ones who admired the plaits Biggy had made Oma’s long brownish hair into. And we walked fast too. We never walked fast. Especially me, I always lagged at a safe distance behind everyone, but today, I was in front.

But as we turned into the main road that led into out street, I noticed a hoard of people swarming to the path that led to our house. And then I walked faster.

Faster

Faster

And faster.

And then I reached the front of our house. And I stopped. The door was covered with people and I only managed to squeeze through because I was small. When I got into the house, I found Cici seated on the floor of our kitchen. She was yelling and crying, and her loud voice was hoarse and cracked. Tears were streaming down her eyes and she only had a piece of wrapper tied around her chest. Her hair was scattered here and there on her head: her long, hair that was black like charcoal and long reaching the small of her back.

At that minute, I saw Daddy come out from the bedroom, holding a brown shiny leather belt and going towards Cici, just as a man, one of our neighbours half-walked, half-ran to him. That was when our neighbour Pamela led me out of the house and took me and Oma and Jojo to her house.

That was the last day I saw Daddy for a very long time. There were no visits from him late in the night. There were no big tubers of yam that were almost as big as my arm, or half-full bags of rice or even big fruity-smelling loaves of bread and money sent through the hands of his friends (who always looked at us with such pity in their eyes, that I walked away from them when they approached). The money would always be handed to Cici, who would say

“Thank you, you hear. Tell your friend thank you for me.”

And just when the men left (yes, they were always men), she would come inside the house and count the money. Every single one of those once shiny-now-dirt laced notes, that looked brown, putting a little spittle to her index finger before she counted them. And then she would say, with a loud long drawn hiss that sounded like a bird’s whistle: “So this is all he can give, eh? For the children? Four children!”

We would look at the tubers of yam that was almost as fat as Mama Nkechi (our neighbour that was short and rounded like avocado), and then we would look at the dry chilli peppers sitting in a small black and yellow nylon bag. We would check out the bread, while Cici sat on a bench outside, talking to herself in low tones.

I miss those days, because even though Cici was talking to herself, and sounding angry, in her eyes, I could see that she was happy. Happy that he thought of us ‘the children’ as she called us.

But not anymore.

After that day, all we got was just that, nothing.

No visits, no gifts, no money, no…no…no… nothing.

Gradually, everything and everyone started to change. No more did we have free crates of Coca cola delivered to our house every month, instead all we had was water for ourselves and for the few visitors that took pity on us and came to say hello. And when the last batch of food and money he had sent before ‘that day’ ran out, our daily meals reduced as well.

Now instead of three meals, we ate twice, sometimes once.

That was when I started noticing that Cici talked to herself less, and sat outside looking into nothing more. Sometimes she would sit with Biggy and they would talk in hush tones, and sometimes when they thought we were too busy playing, or I was too caught up in reading Queen Premier (which by the way I had outgrown by many years), they would let their voices rise a little.

Slowly and slowly and slowly, Cici started to change.

And then one day, something else happened. We hadn’t gone to school. We had stopped going to school a while ago, so we stayed home, and had played and sat and played some more.

Breakfast time came. No food.

Cici was in the bedroom and she was talking to Biggy in hushed tones.

We played some more and watched TV.

And more TV.

Lunch time. Still no food.

We played more, and played and played.

Still no food.

And then we started to get tired, and sit around.

So, when Biggy came into the living room, looking as dark as ever, Oma yawned and said to her.

“I am hungry.”

“Ok.” Biggy said, and went back to the bedroom. Minutes later and many hushed tones later, Cici came out, dressed in a skirt and blouse made out of a flower patterned Ankara material, and her long black hair which had not seen a hairdresser’s hand in many months was left in its glossy shiny glory and a line was in the centre, leaving hair to the left and right sides of her face. Her face looked clear and beautiful and her lips shone red, like palm oil. Her feet were in three-inch-black-stilettos which made small koi-koi-koi sounds as she left the house.

She came home much later, a little before midnight, and I noticed, that the red on her lips was all gone. Jojo and Oma were watching TV and yawning intermittently while we all greeted her. She gave Biggy two light blue nylon bags, and came to sit on the big sofa in the living room. She called three of us to her side, and carried Jojo on her lap.

“My children, I am sorry that there has been no food all day. But that is over from now, ok?”

We nodded, and she went on, talking about Daddy, and how she loved us, and how we were her everything and how she would make sure we never starve, even if it’s the last thing she ever did. At some point, I stopped listening. I was now touching an end of Cici’s hair, wrapping it around my forefinger. She stopped for a minute and looked at me and said nothing so I continued. This was the only time she ever let me play with her hair.

As the aroma of something wafted into the living room from the kitchen, and the erstwhile sleeping worms in my stomach awoke suddenly, a feeling I didn’t understand crept over me. I should have known, that my heart was mourning the end of what was, and the beginning of what now is. Later on, as Jojo rested his head on Cici’s shoulder and yawned and Oma lay on Cici’s lap, I peered above her head, and noticed tears running down her eyes. Silent tears that washed down her black mascara.

The next day was the beginning of something new. A Cici that did not cry, or show any emotion. A Cici that tried to keep the promise she made us that night. Biggy changed too. She lost her own life, and started to live a new one, the one that Cici wanted her to live. Jojo and Oma didn’t change, but I did. I wanted more than anything to please Cici, and to see everything get back to normal. I somehow felt like it was my fault that Daddy left, but I don’t know why I feel that way. And ever since, I have been trying to make it up to everyone, especially Cici.

I felt like it was something I did.

Maybe my bed wetting.

Or my constant quietness.

Maybe it was because I always eavesdropped when Cici and Daddy were having a fight.

I don’t know what it was.

But I changed.

Something in me changed.

But dearest Jumi, when next I do something you don’t understand, or act in a way you think is weird, think of me as this: that girl who doesn’t understand so much. Think of my story, and understand, please Jumi, that I lost my way, and myself, many years ago. And I am only now trying to find myself.

Remember, Jumi, I am trying to resurrect that part of me that died and such things take time. But I will do it, yes, I will. I will get there, for myself, first and then for you.

This I promise my dearest one.

With love,

Lili

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