Adeola gazed at Titi’s mouth and willed her to shut up. Immediately, the long cry came to a halt as the baby sucked in air, then swallowed hard. But the lips puckered again, opening wider and wider. The sharp sound pierced the stillness in the room. Adeola sighed and reached for her.
Cradling the baby awkwardly, she raised the ends of a brown camisole and slowly pushed the chocolate tip of her breast into Titi’s mouth. The baby turned her face away and the nipple came to rest on her puce cheek. Shutting her mouth, Titi opened dark eyes to let the last lick of tears course down the side of her face. Adeola tried again and the baby remained tight-lipped.
Titi’s accusatory glare rested on her mother’s face. The shadows cast by the lantern were long and the blades of the ceiling fan made them look like ghosts in a dark alley. Adeola glared back at the baby and sighed again. It had been a long day, and a longer night awaited her. She groaned inwardly. Today marked a fortnight since she had slept properly. Her eyes pricked, and she could have danced to the drumming in her head. She blinked back tears and made to feed the baby again. Her attempts were futile. She turned to stare at the man snoring on the bed. Adeola wondered how someone could sleep through all the noise.
She was new to Lagos, and though her husband had lived half his life in the large city, she still couldn’t refer to it as home. The decision to marry Bisi and move out of the village had been taken in the heat of passion. Despite that, everything had worked out fine. Her father had returned home one evening from the cocoa plantation where he worked and called her into his room. He had nodded once when she shyly admitted to knowing Bisi. Six months later, she was on her way to her new home.
Just as she was about to give up, Titi opened her mouth slightly and bit down on Adeola’s large bud. She did not take the whole nipple into her mouth but used her gum to press down on half of it. The young mother clenched her teeth and cried into her palm. Her eyes became bloodshot and she moved her head from side to side as if to deny the assault being inflicted on her. Her nipple had been sore since the baby came. The redness at the tip sent ripples through her whenever something came in contact with it. But her neighbour, Mama Caro, who was also a nurse, had dismissed it as normal.
“This is what we women go through. Most of us experience it in all our children. It will pass, but you must continue to breastfeed your child,” she had advised.
Another sharp intake of breath and Adeola caught Titi looking at her. A vein tugged at her cheek and she could have sworn that the baby was smiling. Titi sucked harder, and Adeola shut her eyes, summoning images from sweeter times to manage the pain without crying out.
She had learnt to appreciate the few days off Bisi took from his army post and had resolved not to be the frustrated, nagging wife she had been in their early months as a couple. And by the time she became pregnant, she had come to trust more in the dependable presence of her neighbours, wives like herself. Though the military barrack was filled with gossip mongers, as most of the women were stay-at-home moms, she found solace in their presence and made one or two friends.
Adeola felt the warm liquid sluice down her thighs and she looked down to find Titi sleeping soundly. Her mouth was a hair-breath away from the injured flesh. She placed the baby on the bed and stared at the liquid stain as it spread diagonally on her wrapper. She headed for the bathroom outside.
On her way back, something made her return to her shadow on the face of the mirror hanging from the wall. She raised the lantern only to rear back in horror at how awful she looked. The red-rimmed eyes that stared back at her seemed to say ‘this is what you get for prowling at night.’ The vein on her forehead made a perfect V beginning from between her eyes and rising up into the rough edges of her hair. She drew the veil hanging limply on her head to cover the top half of the V and allowed a few drops from her eyes dampen her cheeks. Then she turned away from the mirror.
Adeola had always considered herself a home-maker. When her mother died, it was easy for her to assume most of her roles: cooking and ensuring her siblings had their baths. By the time she wrote her last paper in the Secondary School Leaving Certificate Examination, she already knew she wanted to be a housewife, like her mother. She planned on staying at home and raising her children. And Bisi had been the perfect match for a husband. He agreed totally with her.
Bisi’s soft snores had turned loud and demanding. Adeola worried it would wake up the sleeping baby. From her mental clock, she knew dawn was still a few hours away. She looked longingly at the mat spread on the floor then, reached for the baby. Gingerly, she tucked Titi in her arms, arranged the ádíre around her small shoulders and headed for the veranda.
The day Adeola put to bed, Bisi was in town. He however did not follow her to the hospital as it was difficult to reach him on his mobile. She had tried his number several times before giving up and going to wake Mama Caro. That was not the first time that he had been absent on occasions when she needed him.
Bisi had returned home without warning one Saturday morning and his wife had been too excited to notice the disenchantment on his face. That day, she had gone to the market, bought ingredients to prepare his favourite soup only to return to an empty house. She had not bothered, cooking and singing to herself. It was only when the clock struck 10pm that she began to worry. That day too, she had called him to no avail. It was not like the service provider announced that the phone was unreachable. It would ring and ring, then come to an abrupt halt, putting a pause in her heartbeat. Then she would try calling again.
Adeola sat on the concrete floor and leaned her back on the wall. The cold night air washed over her face, giving her a little reprieve. She inhaled the smell of engine oil and scrunched her nostrils. Bisi’s ten-year old car must be leaking again. She stretched her legs in front of her, carefully arranged the baby on her thigh and closed her eyes.
Her fingers absently traced the scar on her wrist and she frowned as she recalled how she sustained it. Bisi was not a drunk and his young wife could not understand his frequent temper. When she tried to explain things, reminding him of how loving he used to be, he got madder and his eyes flashed anger. She had gotten fed up one afternoon and decided to see his madness run to its conclusion.
She had found a picture of a woman lying side by side with a condom in Bisi’s wallet. And without preamble, he had told her he kept the condom there in cases of emergency. The picture however was another matter. He wouldn’t explain and sat grim-faced in their tiny sitting-room.
“I want to understand, Bisi. Please tell me who she is.” Her voice was breaking.
“It seems like you are looking for my trouble. If you are not careful, you will find it o.” He said at last.
“Is she your lover? The case of emergency? Is that why you don’t look at me anymore?”
“Hahahaha. What is there to look at? Have I not seen every part of you? Is there anything new you have to offer? Please, I beg you, leave me alone. I am trying to relax here.”
A sob escaped her lips. “How can you even say that? Eh, Bisi? Did you not promise to love me till death do us part? In what way have I offended you that you must hurt me like this?”
“By the way, what were you doing in my wallet? Did you forget something inside?” And that was when he stood up and advanced on her. Adeola had her head bowed and did not look up even when she heard the thunderous roar in his voice.
“So, you will not answer me abi?” Bisi asked. “Your husband is speaking to you and you have the guts to ignore him? Do you not have any home training? I say, what were you doing in my wallet, Adeola?” His blow sent her flying into the cupboard that housed their television. By the time Bisi paused to take in air, it was a miracle she did not lose the pregnancy.
The bulb hanging from the ceiling suddenly flicked, causing Adeola to squint. As if on cue, Titi opened her eyes but did not immediately launch into her usual racket. Adeola stared hard at her and a grim line appeared between her lips when she recognised Bisi’s eyes. The nose too was small and round like her husband’s. She was beginning to frown when her eyes settled on the lips. It reminded her of her mother’s smile. And she suddenly realised that if she narrowed her eyes, concentrating only on the lower half of Titi’s face, she could look at her with a smile.
When Mama Caro paid her a visit and saw the bruised flesh on Adeola’s wrist, she excused herself only to return shortly. She was surprised when the older woman handed her a newspaper clipping. The article was advertising a women empowerment scheme. Mama Caro explained that there would be free training exercises and afterwards, a job will be waiting.
For a few minutes, Adeola allowed her spirit to be buoyed. She imagined herself in colourful print dresses and high-heeled shoes just like her friend. She saw herself in a world away from the confines of her home, meeting new people, having an income, doing important things and feeling needed. But Adeola hastened to put a stop to her fantasies. She was a home-maker after all. Mama Caro insisted she kept the clipping, before taking her leave.
Adeola stood up and transferred Titi to her back, fastening the baby with her wrapper. The arrival of the light signalled a few hours to dawn. Mentally, she went through everything she had to do, arranging them in a sequence. Drawing several buckets of water from the well to fill the drum, lighting the abacha stove and putting water on it to boil, washing last night’s dishes and cleaning the beans for akara, which Bisi preferred grinded on a stone, bathing, and then, cleaning the house. She sighed. She knew she had to be done before 7a.m. Bisi did not tolerate laziness.
A letter had come for her a few months ago informing her that her father had re-married. Two weeks later, she travelled down to the village and discovered that her father’s new wife was much older than he was. And also, that everyone called her Mama. When she put to bed and another letter arrived to say Mama will be coming to spend time with her, Adeola could barely contain her joy at the prospect of the visit. Her heart beat wildly and she had to bite the insides of her cheeks to keep herself from grinning sheepishly. She had been without her family for a long while and she looked forward to sharing all her experiences with Mama. She also wanted to ask her about the frightful changes in Bisi and she hoped Mama’s well of knowledge would help her understand. And maybe find a solution.
Adeola knelt down to welcome her and Mama dropped the huge Ghana-must-go bag filled with garri at her feet, then asked, “Do you have hot water? I want to bathe.”
That day, Mama did not touch Titi, or any day afterwards. It was as if the baby had an incurable disease which Mama was terrified of contracting. The day Adeola attempted to place Titi on Mama’s thigh so as to get breakfast for her, Mama had screamed at her audacity.
Fortunately, there was already a huge pot of water simmering on the abacha stove. Adeola put the bathing water in the bathroom outside, then, quickly brought in the pounded-yam and oyoyo soup she had made for Bisi earlier. It was a blessing he was staying out late again. Mama had her bath, ate, then stretched out on the large bed beside the baby. It was as sleep was about to overtake her that she turned slightly and asked if Adeola was well. She immediately began to snore such that it was difficult to tell if she heard the fear and uncertainty in the young mother’s response. That was two months ago and she still looked forward to having a proper conversation with Mama.
Adeola smiled as she waved Bisi goodbye on the veranda. He was going to be gone for at least six months. Bisi frowned at her before turning round and heading down the road. He hadn’t seen her smile in a while so she must be happy to see him go.
Adeola ran back into the house and quickly changed her clothes. She was going out. Not to mami market, as usual, not to Mama Caro’s, a few blocks away. She was starting her training that morning. Over time, she had studied the newspaper clipping such that, she knew all the words and their exact arrangement on the clipping. She had thought hard about her decision before making up her mind.
She knew without doubt that she will do well as a midwife. Hard work was no stranger to her. And she loved taking care of people. Mama Caro had also assured her that there was a nursery at the hospital where the children of staff were looked after. Adeola was ready to embrace the world. She placed the tray carrying Mama’s breakfast on a low stool before strapping Titi on her back. As she hastened out of the house, she did not wake Mama up.
Image: Erik via Flickr