My father is no father at all. He is both monster and bully, but not a father.
Things began to fall apart in our home the day my mother told my father that she wanted to start a business. A shoe-selling business. It was on a Sunday; the same day my fifteen-year old brother Esomchi took ill.
I was lying on my stomach on the cold tiled floor of our self-contained apartment. Ours was not the comfortable type of self-contained apartment you would find on Ikejiani Street or Randle Crescent or on other streets of Lagos. The kitchen door of our apartment faced the other tenant’s kitchen door. And the bedroom and toilet doors, too.
There is a corrugated iron roof that covered the two apartments. Still, whenever rain came, it seeped through the gaping holes in the roof. So, my brother and I would lift and position heavy drums directly under the leaks, so that the rain filled them. Even after the drums were filled, and we had no other drums to replace them with, the rain poured and poured, till a pool, big enough for fishes to swim in, was formed. And the alley separating our apartment from the other tenant’s was filled with water that had a litter of papers, plastic cups, and all sorts of things floating on it.
The houses that lined my street were without fences. Except the two houses close to the bend at the end of the road, we all lived without fences. Right now, if you stood in front of our compound, close to the moss-covered concrete-walled gutter that ran the full length of my street, you would see almost everything in our neighbour’s living room: their newly painted walls, the many-inch television they just bought. You would even find children bathing outside. In the full glare of the morning sun.
Flipping nervously through the pages of my History notebook, I heard my mother come in through the kitchen door. Esomchi lay asleep on the floor of the bedroom, while my father was outside, reading The Nation.
My mother returned with a black nylon full of boiled groundnuts. She was sweating profusely in her faded aso-oke. The cloth of her ichafu around her hairline was wet, and the tendrils of hair close to the sides of her ear curled from her sweat. She was smiling. The smile was affable. Removing her well-tied ichafu, she asked, “Where is your father?”
I answered, “He is outside. By the well.”
My gaze was still fixed on the nuts that my mother held in her right hand. When she raised the nylon, whose ruffling sounds agitated me the more, my eyes followed it. Dropping it on the wooden shelf by the door, my gaze rested on it. I was hungry. For breakfast, which I didn’t eat, we’d been served the palm-oil rice my mother cooked the day before.
Since the military government took over, the cost of food items in the market hiked. Fuel became very expensive. Traders could not afford to pay rents. So, they lost their shops. My father lost his, too.
Every morning, when the sun seemed reluctant to rise, my father would sit by the well. He would tune his radio to a news station, widen his lap in an accustomed ritual to accommodate the size of the newspaper, and pore through every page of The Nation. Neck craned forward, head bent over; his cracked lips would momentarily whisper few lines from the paper. On days when he could not afford to buy The Nation, he would pick from the pile of old issues that were neatly propped up at a corner in the bedroom. He wore a pained look as he read them.
Whenever my father finished a copy of The Nation, he would throw frightening jabs into the air, talk in thick croaked tones, and curse General Babangida’s government. The other Sunday that was Esomchi’s birthday, I made a colourful card and showed it to my father. He took the card, turned it up-and-down, and tore it into shreds. He was not frowning; he was sneering. Sneers and more sneers even after I left him. And what was once a gift to my younger brother became tufts of colourful pieces that were trampled under the feet of a man I called my father.
“The groundnuts are for you and Esomchi. Don’t wake him yet.” She left strings of her happiness all over the place as she hurried out to meet my father, her face covered with sweat. I smiled, for I knew something good had come to stay.
In the next relaxed minutes that elapsed, I heard shouts and loud thumps as if heavy objects were falling from the skies, for the noise echoed and shook the silent walls of our apartment. The shouts persisted. I dashed out to find out what was happening.
Hours later at the hospital, when I would care to know what happened from a neighbour who had seen it all, I would learn that my mother had told my father that her sister-in-law had decided to set her up in a shoe-selling business. I would learn that my father dealt my mother two punches on her neck after she told him. Then, he kicked her sides till there was blood all over. And after she fell lifeless on the rocky ground, my father climbed the wall, manoeuvred himself onto the roof, and disappeared into the street.
Having ordered Esomchi to stay back at home, I spent my night at St. Luke’s hospital. As I watched the drip–a colourless, apparently motionless liquid–trickle down the slender tube, I could only pray. Locking my quivering hand around my mother’s cold hand, I listened to her restricted breathing disturb the stillness of the hospital room. Sleep came slowly in shrewd whispers.
Early the next morning, when the streets were almost empty and smelled of looming rain, I returned home to find Esomchi in a yellowish pool of his own vomit. He was unconscious.
The rain, which had disappeared for weeks, first came as a shy drizzle, in slow successive patters on the roof. This was my second week of being away from school. Even without my mother being at the hospital, and my father gone like a wisp of smoke, I still would steer clear of school. My fee was yet to be paid. Though I have tried persuading my mother to allow me change to a public school, all my efforts fell back on me, without results. My mother believed all public schools in Nigeria had little or nothing to offer. They are poorly managed, she said. You and Esomchi deserve better than attending a public school.
Walking into St. Luke’s hospital, the drizzle slipped steadily into heavy rain. I greeted the nurses, and inhaled the rather pale scent of the hospital’s corridor as I padded to my mother’s room. Among other thoughts, the first vague thought I had on getting out of bed came back to me, fully fledged: How were we going to pay the hospital bills?
My mother was smiling at the lopsided figure that stood by her bed. The burly figure, a man I thought looked old enough to be my grandfather, returned her smiles. The moist air around the room was friendly.
“Aha! Obinna is here,” My mother said, urging me to come closer with her waving arms. “Obinna, greet Chief.”
I turned to the man and said, “Good morning Sir.” He laughed, patted me on the back, and left his hand there. On my back. I wanted to tell him to get his hand away, and that I was no longer a child to be patted on the back. Instead, I let my gaze ricochet round the room. The butter-coloured plain curtains looked newly washed. There were tins of Peak Milk and Bournvita, and a half-empty bottle of Lucozade Boost on top of the tiny drawer beside by my mother’s bed. The blood-stained pillowcase was replaced by another clean, white case; yet, the blood-matted hair of my mother left pale streaks of red on the new pillowcase.
“Obinna, Chief here has been taking care of me. He paid my hospital bill. And your brother’s. He has also decided to put you back in school. One of his boys drove Esomchi home today.”
I gave my mother a puzzled look: Home? What home? But her eyes were skyward, the corners of her lips sagged in a smile.
“Esomchi is in a good place. In one of Chief’s big mansions.” She widened her arms as if to show how large the house was. She coughed and continued, “The house has many servants. You will join him there too. Ngwa, kene Chief.”
As instructed, I turned to the man and said, “Thank you Sir.” I was neither smiling nor putting on a closed expression; I only stared at his clay-coloured face, tracing the wrinkles and tiny folds across his face, and not finding the proud look I expected. I saw that his head–though bald at the front–had bare rows of whitish wisps behind. I could tell the dashiki he wore was very expensive.
Chief offered to drive me home when I was about leaving the hospital. And as we drove past the narrow, kiosk-lined streets of Lagos, he narrated stories of his childhood. He told me that he knew what my father did to my mother, and that he, too, once had a father like mine. But his father died during the civil war.
For a brief moment, when Chief mentioned “civil war”, he pierced the hidden cocoon of my childhood memories, and once again, my mind was flooded with memories of my father. When I was only ten, my father told me a story about how he lost his transistor radio before the civil war started; the Biafran war, he called it. He told me the same story every day, till the storylines, which used to be fascinating, became rancid and I would feign sleep whenever I sensed he was about to start the story. The war came to us like a surprise, he said, and when people started fleeing Lagos, I sold all I had to afford my return to the village. Including my transistor radio, he never forgot to add; as though a mere radio could be likened to the numerous lives that were lost.
Listening absently to Chief, I watched trees–plantain trees, coconut trees, almond trees–vanish one after the other in a hasty dance of dissolution. We drove past Yaba market, which was now scanty unlike before, owing to the heavy daily dues imposed on the traders by the military men. I watched through the window as one woman wept bitterly over her toppled tray of oranges and bananas. The woman, somewhat in her mid-fifties, hunched over her wares, begging the uniformed soldier. Clearly she had no money and didn’t want her means of survival taken away. In a mock attempt to pick the fruits, the soldier squashed some of them under his heeled shoes and laughed loudly. I clenched my fists in revulsion.
Chief touched my left thigh to draw my attention, and asked me what I would like to eat; he was smiling as he asked. Beneath his lips, which sagged by the corners as if at the tiredness of usage, I saw his brown-stained set of teeth that had two seated holes in them. I slowly relaxed my fists.
I replied, “Anything.”
“Will you also like to join your brother?” Chief’s voice was soothing.
I only nodded, and then I said, “I will like to join him. But not today. Maybe tomorrow.”
Ordering all kinds of food, Chief’s eyes glowed with honest delight, and this made me realize how truly nice he was. For a lasting moment, I envisioned him as my father. Later, when my mother would be discharged from the hospital, she would tell me of Chief–one of the countless men who had come to her father seeking her hand in marriage. Though her father had openly declined on the grounds that Chief already had four wives, her father had secretly told her his reason: to enjoy the fruits of marriage, the man must live as long as the woman.
When night came, with the loud chirps of crickets and deafening hums of generator sets, I had plenty to eat. Thanks to Chief, an angel in human body; thanks to Chief, for making sharp pains of losses bearable for my mother and my brother. The stewed rice tasted as good as it looked. Although there was much oil in the fried chicken, I enjoyed sucking its bones till they became dry, and well, softer. I preserved the egusi soup and fufu for Esomchi in our small fridge, as if he didn’t have enough to eat wherever he was. I decided to forget about my father; not for what he did to my mother, but for the many hideous things he did to us a few days after he lost his shop.
As I crept onto the lumpy mattress, I imagined Esomchi was there with me. In the dark. I imagined his smallish body leaning against mine. He was always afraid of the dark. Or afraid of the ghosts, he said, that lurked in the dark. I shifted closer and imagined his feet touching my feet, his face arched against my face. We started conversing: he told me about his friends in his new class, the new subjects he offered, and the English teacher who offered to visit him.
The night breeze blew violently against the curtains, but came to us favourably. I got up in earnest, shut the louvres, returned to the bed, and soon fell asleep, though Esomchi wouldn’t stop talking.
I woke up to the hesitant knocks on the kitchen door. Rubbing my eyes with the back of my palm, I strained my ear to listen, since I wasn’t sure I had heard any knocks at first. But the knocks did not cease. I levered myself out of bed and walked feebly to the door. It must have been about midnight or so, I thought. When I asked who was at the door, my father answered.
“Obinna, it’s me. It’s your father,” He said in hushed tones.
I was silent, afraid. Why did he choose to come home at such an ungodly hour?
“Obim, open the door,” His voice quavered.
I sensed trepidation in his voice, but since my father was not a man of fear, I dismissed the thought. Maybe he didn’t wish to wake our neighbours. I could not remember the last time my father called me Obim. It was probably because the memory of being a sufferer in his hands had left its pang of loss, and I was done recalling sweet memories of him. Obim was a nickname–more or less a shortened version of my name–my father gave me. A nickname I loved.
My father called out again, “Obinna, are you there?”
“No. I will not open the door,” I replied in defiance. Anger, this anger, gave me strength once again, and it was willing to stand by me.
“Why Obim? It’s me. It’s your father, Obim.”
“You are not my father. Go away. Go back to where you came from.”
“Open the damn door!” He thundered.
Touching my hand to the door, I felt my father’s disappointment, and the waves of shock my reply gave him. But no, I was never going to let him in.
I left the door and returned to bed and waited in the dark. I listened to the shouts of my father, asking me to open the door for him. Afterwards, his shouts became threats. Closing my eyes, I relived Esomchi’s presence in the room, on the bed. This time, his small hands wrapped mine. He was begging me not to leave him for the ghosts in the dark. His gentle breathing, as he begged, warmed my shirtless body.
All of a sudden, I heard gunshots. One, two…five gunshots. The noise seared through the once peaceful quietness of the night. Meanwhile, I could no longer hear my father calling out to me. Moments later, the night brimmed over with sheer silence. I drew Esomchi closer to me and fell asleep.