Dad was criminally stingy. I didn’t know how he happened to be so. But I knew mum had always stared at him, dusted up all the courage she had and sputtered harsh words on dad because he did one stingy thing or the other. Like that day. Mum had sent Peter, my brother, to tell dad to give him money so that Peter could buy tin tomato for the afternoon jollof rice. Dad squinted his eyes at first, then squeezed his face, purred his lips (I think he was smelling beer) and told Peter to tell mum that he didn’t have enough money; and that, in any case, tomato would make the rice extravagant. Only onion could. Mum turned pink in confusion and then red in anger.
‘How could you say such a thing, stingy man?’
Already he was immune to that kind of venom from mum. He merely stared at her, somewhat amused. I didn’t know if mum saw some sarcasm in the indistinct smile pushing forth from his shamed eyes. She blew her top. And because she had a thunder of voice, peals of harsh words revved out like a screeching tyre on a tarred road. She unloaded many insults on dad who sprang up suddenly, stung mum with a slap and our small parlor turned to a wrestling ring.
Mum was infernally strong. You could see how she planted her legs so defensively around her and dad pushed with all his strength and it was in vain. Mum had her head buried below dad’s chest. He had his arms round her body. Entangled and breathing fast, they theatricalized their aggression round the center table
I kept yelling, ‘Leave her alone, dad! Leave her alone, dad! Dad!’
Peter had hidden his body in the inner room, his face stuck out, giggling stupidly. He was laughing at dad, I guessed. Yet there wasn’t anything to laugh about. Dad became victorious, after all, because he hit mum so hard on her nose that blood came; he left the house without giving the money for tomato and Mum nursed her nose instead of cooking for us. I managed my hunger with unsugared, soaked gari. But Peter, never having appetite for cheap food (maybe he’d taken after mum) wallowed in punishing hunger in sleepless night. Judith, our last born, ate gari with me.
Next day, our small family woke into confusion. Dad left for work, unwashed; mum withered away in anger at the privacy of her curtained bed; Peter huddled himself in a wobbly armchair, not a single trace of his usual stupid smile in his sunken stare; Judith, a plate in hand, nagged, insistently demanding for food from mum or me which she couldn’t get. I simply stretched myself on our worn out sofa, up-faced, counting the holes on our ceiling so as to keep my attention warm and focused.
Afternoon of that day, dad came home with a kind of dramatic irony in his voice and eyes. He was suddenly trumpeting, ‘I’ve made it! I’ve made it! Shame has shamed the devil! I’ve made it! I’ve got the fortune of my life!’
I was wondering what this fortune of his life was. Dad had always sucked in despair that he’d never been born with anything like luck or fortune. Passionately, he’d told Peter and I one day, in a heavily sermonic tone, that life was a bundle of opposites and all those talks about formula for success and formula for failure were a whole lump of consolatory balm and we should be careful about life. Then, Peter was about moving from class four to five in secondary school and he was reading very hard. He was spending more than half of the night or all of the night reading. Dad had started by cautioning peter to hold his peace.
He said, ‘My son, hearken to the voice of your father,’ (dad, when in a humorous mood, could lift phrases, sentences or lines from the bible in a funny way). ‘You don’t need to read as hard as you’re doing. Stop wasting your brain! If you read too much, you’ll become insignificant to this world!’
Peter stared in utter surprise; I burst out, ‘Dad, that’s not true. People read to become great.’
‘Nonsense, Ruth.’ His eyeballs rolled round and stood riveted on me. ‘Let me tell you, and after I’ve told you this, you can check it out for yourselves. When I was in primary school, the best pupils in my class then are now village primary school headmasters. All of them! In my secondary school class, a girl and two boys were hot in their brains. Now the two boys teach English in different secondary schools and the girl teaches Christian Religious Studies in secondary school, too. C. R. S! Not even a better subject.’ Peter and I had our stares rapt on dad. He was utterly engrossed in what he was saying. ‘At the university – anyway it was one tiny state university that our governor established on the edge of his pride – I pulled myself together, handwork here and manipulation there, I added everything energetically and surprisingly graduated as one of the best students. But what am I today? A police ASP, unpromoted, maybe unpromotable, not able to survive on anything, not even on the so-called Obasanjo package, but on twenty naira bribes on the roads. The day Nigerians stop giving bribes on the roads, you’ll,’ he swept us round with his large eyeballs, ‘stop eating fine food. And yet your mother calls me a stingy man. Am I really stingy?
I told dad, ‘Well, dad I want to be better than you; so I must read harder than you.’
Dad just guffawed. ‘Your Sunday school teacher or C.R.S. mistress must have taught you that, not so? Cheap philosophy, my children, very cheap philosophy: sons are better than their fathers and daughters, than their mothers. Peter and Ruth obey the voice of your father; this world doesn’t operate on such cheap philosophy. Today, in our world, children are more miserable than their parents. When I was like you, I used to eat chicken almost everyday. But now in a month you’ve not eaten chicken. Things are so hard. And yet she calls me a stingy man.’
Dad was at his best that evening and he went on ramming a something into our heads about modern paradoxes in a man’s life.
It was a hundred thousand pools win that dad brought home in those his eyes of dramatic irony. Mum couldn’t hide her joy and smile humbled the angry face she’d put on since dad kicked her on her nose. Peter was happy too. But I didn’t know how exactly I felt, except that I was busy figuring out what hundred thousand naira looked like, what it could gulp from the market, what contribution it could make to our miserable house, how many bottles of Star (dad had always rhapsodized the beer, Star, even when mum hated that) it could fetch dad, and so on. My imagination went wild and I thought dad would be kind enough to make me a young lady by dissolving a small part of the hundred thousand naira into my fashion.
Already, dad had knelt down, placed the check of that amount in his front, made the sign of the cross sharply and spread his arms in solemnity. First thing was to thank God for making him, our family, win such a huge amount from playing pools. I wanted to tell dad, despite his mood, that our C.R.S. mistress told us that playing pools was sinful. We’d got sinful money. I just looked at dad’s serious lips and laughed. He ended his prayer quickly, sprang up like a boy – like Peter – and began to look at us with smug smile. I’d never seen him in such miracle of joy before. This hundred thousand naira simply brought the other side of dad out. Peter and I had always thought that dad was an incurable pessimist. Every day, he came home with stinking socks inside which he hid mercilessly crumpled twenty-naira notes and lamented that the road was bad. Or his ogas in office wangled the money they’d made. Or that an envious superior officer of his was scheming his removal from patrol team. Most times, he didn’t actually complain to us; he complained to himself.
But now he was so pleased; his face was aglow with life. It seemed money meant life. But wasn’t it money that he brought home everyday? I’d once told Peter, in our private, gossipy tête-à-tête, that if dad added all the twenty naira notes he brought home daily, they could swell into a million. Peter, at first, concurred to what I said. Then he said something quite awful as an afterthought: ‘Don’t you know that dad can’t do anything meaningful with the money because it was collected from people as bribe.’
This didn’t make sense to me, ‘What do you mean? Is anything wrong with bribe money? Remember our literature teacher said everybody, including the president of our country, collected bribes. Dad can’t do anything because he’s stingy! He eats alone. Or keeps it all for himself.’
‘Lie! It is lie. Look, we’re miserable because dad brings home bribe money. Those people swore on the money before they gave dad.’
I pondered over what Peter said. Maybe, some sense? But were we really as miserable as he said. We lived like every other family on our street. In fact, we were even better off than some people around us. Like Dele who told us that for a week, nonstop, they’d eaten beans, cooked with a lot of water and pepper. He’d said his father, a taxi driver, stopped working because there was fuel scarcity. I knew Peter was just trying to put up that his adult thinking that often sounded warped. Because people said he was brilliant, he’d always thought he had better opinions than everyone.
Dad left for bank after the prayer. Mum, surprisingly taking an interest in dad’s mien, said she would go with him. He said that didn’t make sense. She had to be home to put the house in order so that it could be decent enough to house a hundred thousand naira. How could that amount be brought to such a dirty parlor? Then an idea occurred to mum. She insisted that a party had to be instantly thrown because (since a hundred thousand naira was beyond something to be stingy about) dad had to be generous enough to invite some friends to share in the goodness of the Lord with us. Dad didn’t like the idea but she hit a sensibility into his head and cowed him. It was agreed that while he went to bank, mum should clean the house. Mum went into her closet, brought some money she’d saved from her trading and sent me to the market. She was sure I knew how to pick good chicken; I’d done it before.
When I returned from the market dad hadn’t come back. Mum and Peter had kept things spick and span. Judith was in one of her Sunday bests grinning from ear to ear. But there was a kind of anxiety in mum’s voice when she welcomed me. When she heard my steps, she’d thought it was dad that was coming. I spread what I bought on the floor and she and I found ourselves in the kitchen. Her attention, I could see, was divided between the kitchen and sounds of footsteps outside. I knew anxiety was mounting in her. In me, too.I was wondering why dad hadn’t come. I knew dad was given to dramatic irony with that his anachronistic smile. But I didn’t want to think that he would be blind to the fact that expectations and longings surrounding a hundred thousand naira were too formal for dramatic irony.
I watched mum from the corners of my eyes as I worked. Mum had bustling emotions. Sometimes, they overflowed like a boundless river. She could easily get excited, even restive. She could also easily get hurt and abrasive. Or peevish. While Peter and I could always sit around dad and have free-minded chats, anytime, giggling over some of his outrageously funny utterances, we were always careful with mum and avoided her as much as we could.
Now I pitied her because she was getting really apprehensive. She said, ‘For gods’ sake, where is this man? All banks have closed by now, haven’t they?’
Whether she directed the question to me or not, I grunted, ‘I don’t know.’
‘Peter!’ she called.
Peter answered from within.
‘Check the time for me.’
Yet dad hadn’t come. We’d almost finished the cooking. I dashed into the bathroom to wash up. A film began to play on my mind as soon as the privacy of the bathroom roomed me. Dad sat in a well-tailored suit, handsome, his lips rapid with rhythms of bizarre words, like Michael Henchard when he auctioned his wife, in the midst of energetic drunkards, doing a significant Father Christmas with the hundred thousand naira. He urged everyone to drink as many bottles of Star as they could. Then he began to slam his feverish philosophy into their rheumy-eyes stares. ‘Best people in this world are people who are drunkards!’ he was shouting on top of his voice; and they were hailing him triumphantly; his gesticulations were wild and he kept uttering, so spiritedly, a lot of that nonsense he’d sermonize to me and Peter. He sprang up at the peak of it all, ‘This world has two classes: one class is that of drunkards, our own class,’ he swept everyone with his wild arms, ‘it’s the class of the sanest people. The other class belongs to non-drunkards, insane people, pitiably plunged into their own quest for acquiring people’s money, public fund, and stashing it into their foreign accounts. They lack philosophy of life; they lack soul of man; in short, they are not human beings like us.’
A huge rat rumbling on the rusted ceiling of the bathroom nudged me into reality. I eyed the rat and watched its long tail as it drew away. In no time, I took my bath, sped to our bedroom, creamed my body, and wore my favorite home wear. I knew mum would have frowned at my wear if she hadn’t been immersed in her increasing moody mien. She would have yelled that I was always out of place when people were in place; she could have repeated her favorite line against me: ‘Ruth, you don’t ever know how to make appearance; like your dad.’ This didn’t bother me, though. I’d, however, respected and appreciated mum’s taste. She knew how to match colors. She was also a natural talent in decoration. Mum did National Diploma in Theatre Arts. She loved acting and had once figured herself as a star actress (you’d be enthralled if she told you about her dead ambition in acting). Dad perfectly killed that ambition in her because it had been his long-held conviction that actors and actresses were wayward people, and adventurous in uncanny eccentricities. And mum became a trader, an unsuccessful and murmuring one. She watched Home Movies with passion, kept a perfect list of all Home Movie stars, had a staggering knowledge of their lives, and even dreamt dreams for them. In most of her quarrels with dad, she’d bluntly told him that if he hadn’t used grandfather-made love portion to trap her under his armpit, she would have outdone Liz Benson and would, probably, have been a wife to Olu Jacobs, Pete Edochie or RMD. In one of such cases, Dad, with his virulent tongue, said something that was awfully outrageous. He picked his words slowly, bitingly, ‘I know you’ve been making love to those men in your fantasy; that’s why you reject me in the nights. And because you’re so foolish, it has never occurred to you that none of those men will buy you for a sisi!’ Dad said this in the parlor while we were all there. Mum was so stung that she remained deadly moody throughout the day. I caught her twice looking herself up in the long, bedside mirror questioningly.
Suddenly, we heard the proud tramp of dad’s manly steps towards the door. Mum sprang up and made for the outer door, but changed her mind and turned to the door into the inner room. She was soon inside the inner room, at the centre, standing, doing nothing. Peter and Judith rushed to dadand collected his handbag. I seized a look at the bag to see if it was bulging; it was. Dad entered the house proudly, happiness all over his face.
‘Where is she?’
‘Oh sweetheart!’ Mum rushed in from the bedroom and embraced him. ‘Oh sweetheart! You’ve made it. You’re my hero. I’m proud of you.’ It was the first time we heard mum call dad so.
Dad kept dishing out rich man’s laughter.
Dad’s handbag was still with Peter. Peter was massaging it with his two palms, maybe tying to feel the money inside it. Dad and mum were already seated. Mum, whose eyes had been straying towards the money, spoke to Peter, when she couldn’t bear the suspense anymore, ‘Peter, bring the bag let me see the money.’ Peter took it to her and when she was about opening it, dad asked me, ‘Ruth, what is today’s date?’
‘First April, dad.’
Mum had opened the bag. Her eyes suddenly dimmed; her countenance deflated.
‘April fool!’ dad shouted.
Except for dad, a sepulchral silence fell on us. Mum was slowly fingering out tailor’s pieces of clothes from the bag. There was in her look a sense of anger, a sense of frustration, a sense of resignation. I thought she would explode and make trouble.
Dad called, ‘Peter.’
Peter grunted an answer.
‘There is a need for a man to play April fool, especially if he has a wife who lives in dreams.’
Mum sprang at dad and jacked him up. Dad was just laughing too much. And I knew that the parlor would not turn to a wrestling ring anymore. Judith had a morose stare at them. Peter and I left the room.