Jumoke Verissimo, Abiku

Coming and going these several seasons,
Do stay out on the baobab tree,
Follow where you please your kindred spirits
If indoors is not enough for you. JP Clark, Abiku

I am Abiku, calling for the first
And the repeated time.Wole Soyinka, Abiku

Anu dragged her feet. She was burdened with a soccerball stomach and the jute bag in her right hand. From her position she saw the house; its lidded brown roof and jagged eaves. Few more steps and she would face its unpainted breast of wall with plywood window louvres and a cubicle-balcony wedged into it. She wrung her nose and spat on the ground as she passed a small refuse dump, yet her eyes scanned the surrounding like that of a solitary traveller with no hint of rest in the distance. She was one of those pregnant women who invoked pity because their stomachs appeared to double their lean frames.

Her thought went to how she would again return to her daily routine of domestic chores and making time to write and distribute letters to primary schools for a job as a junior class school teacher. She was far away in thought, until something feathery tickled her legs and sent her stomping wildly on the ground. The earlier awkwardness of pushing her protruded stomach onward for a moment disappeared. She struggled to regain her breath, but followed with her eye, a cackling hen scamper from between her legs while its pursuer—a philandering all-white cock—persisted with its chase.

Anu soon reached the house. It was near quiet. It could have been quieter, but the noise of a barber’s generator carried a hum that sounded like remote traffic intruding a graveyard. Stoves, mops and some other objects that fulfilled domestic needs littered the passage and cast shadows about the corridor. She thought of the horror movies she watched as a child, where a skeleton or some zombies popped up from nowhere to scare the hero into rendering a loud shriek. It was something she yearned to do just then, not from fear of thinking of those horror movies, but for the concurrent pain that shot from the depth of her abdomen as her foetus kicked hard as she placed her right feet on the platform. She paused and let out a deep breath. She pitied herself as she took in the picture of her stomach beetled over the block, a make-shift step, she would climb to get to the patio. With some more heavy breathes she placed her legs one after another on the staircase: a move backwards to measure accurately where to place her feet while using the jute bag as a balance, she lifted herself onto the pedestal until she stood balanced on the terrace after two tries. Her efforts were supported by a series of muffled breathes.

Anu placed her bag against the wall, and sat down on a wooden bench to steady her breath. She closed her eyes and concentrated on her heart which raced like one who just finished a 400m race. She remained like this for some minutes.

Her open eyes met a stray dog besides her. It licked its paws. Its brown coat glistened like it was oiled until she noticed a sore, shaped like Nigeria’s map, behind the dog’s left ear. The congealed blood against its tawny coat irritated her. She tried to ignore it, by moving the bag to another side. When she could not take the dogs presence any longer, she rummaged hurriedly through her bag for the house keys: pushed deep, and then deeper, but only the jingle of metals reached her ears, the keys evaded her fingers. She cursed under her brows and stopped to again lean against the wall before she straightened herself out to pour the contents of her bag unto the ground. The key wove its ring around a handkerchief that sat in a corner of the bag.

“Ha! Madam, you are back?” The animated voice of the landlord broke into her confused state.  As he reached her, his questions took a more personal note.

“Your husband said you were too sick. Very sick,” his voice rose, “How are you now?”

A voice in her head said she should ignore him, but she answered him in a low voice, but he appeared not to have heard her, because he walked away muttering how he was just asking about welfare and did not want anyone to treat him as a busybody. His steps soon faded as he entered into the house. She felt bad with the way things turned out. He was one of the people she spoke with since she moved into the house with Akin. They were three of them: the landlord, his wife and her own husband. When she first moved in, few women, wives to other tenants, tried to join conversations with her in the mornings as she fetched water at the public tap or cooked in the communal kitchen, asking for salt or lime or one inane thing or another. She never spoke to them. She either extended their need to them or shook her head and remained silent when she did not have what they wanted. Soon, they passed her with a nod, then a grunt, but the days before she fell sick and left the house they were silent and straight-faced when they walked past her.

Anu got up from the bench and headed to the door, dragging the bag behind her. A hen walked on the cemented corridor of the house and skittered further as she walked to the room she shared with her husband: It was the fourth room downstairs in the building.  There were twelve rooms downstairs and fourteen upstairs, twenty-six in all.

She unlocked the door. She stopped as she thought she heard footfalls and lingered to see if someone was around. It was not like she cared, but the thought of other occupants in the house went to only three persons:  the three housewives upstairs who her husband, Akin, once said were a lousy lot, “Getting bloated with the fried meat they ate between watching Nollywood movies from morning to dusk and standing up grudgingly to buy food at a roadside for their children. Irresponsible women that don’t cook at home! Mscheew.”

Perhaps with the lack of power they were all on some compulsory siesta she concluded. In a way she was thankful. The quiet of the house met her mood. She wanted to be in the room before their TV bellowed loud screams from the Nollywood movies; where someone always seemed to scream or shout or cry like a dog howling over pain in the films, mixed with their shouts of shock or/and laughter.

She opened the door still thinking of the women. Anu remembered Akin mimicking the way they walked, their flesh vibrating as they moved down the stairs. Actually, the three women were “bloated” as Akin described, they were not fat. He said there was a difference between a fat woman and a bloated woman. He had explained this to her when she began to eat heavily after she lost her job as a primary school teacher that she would become bloated. He then said between his famous calm smiles that eating to forget is an easy way to obstruct nature and become bloated. “Don’t you know that the fat woman had nature’s master plan, the bloated woman is the one who eats to rewrite nature’s plans by expanding her horizon forcefully?”

Those were the good days. When she went to work and his salary seemed enough, and though they were was not married, she slept over every other weekend. These times were when they talked about living together in a three-bedroom apartment with just two children – like Oyinbos – one boy and one girl. Finish. The children would be like those white children with a room filled with toys.  They were going to save towards that life, but she lost her job and his salary wasn’t regular any longer and he needed to work more and he was never at home and she became pregnant. That was one of the reasons Akin could not come to bring her home with a taxi.

It was the end of the many days her husband explained to her that he needed to work some more because only few times were such work shifts available.

She did not remind him that it was the third week since he began making excuses of finding a shift to make more money.  She had continued to stay in her father’s house even after her health improved and her stomach grew rounder and tauter, so much that it readily invited sympathies and pities that made most people obligated to run errands for her. Worse still, she was constantly reminded of how she was not yet legally married to her man, and was an eyesore among the neighbours.

Staying in her father’s house came as an option when she became pregnant and yet sickly; her father invited her home against her mother’s wish. It seemed a good idea as Akin was never at home these days. He spent more time at work, trying to earn more money by covering shifts for absent workers at the factory.

Although she had hated the idea of returning home, she knew her younger ones would be of service to her and her father who was a nurse, would nurture her back to good health.  As she expected, her mother saw her as an unwelcomed rival in her unwed but pregnant state, not the seven months pregnant daughter carrying her grandchild.

Her mother called Akin her ‘son-in-law’ before she became pregnant; but he became “that boy that impregnated you,” after she raised the idea of a “proper” wedding with a deserving splendour, and Anu argued that would have to wait until the baby was delivered. Her mother stopped talking to her directly and only sent messages through her younger ones; especially as the due date drew nearer.

*

Inside the room, she leaned against the wall and dropped her bags on the floor. She looked around in exasperation. The room was a mess.  The smell of dead rat/s hit her as she opened the door. Standing with her right hand placed over her nose, she looked around and began prepping herself on where to start the cleaning. She indeed found a rat and mouse glue trap besides the bed; in it were two lean rats. “Poor things.”

She moved forward only for her left leg to become entangled in a coil of cable on the ground. She picked it from the floor. She remembered those times she came to visit him, before she moved in with him, the room was always well-made.

There was a blackened pot on a kerosene stove at a corner of the room; its cover was placed in a slant against it and she noticed some cooked rice was left.  The centre table which separated the sitting space from the bed area carried unwashed pots and plates. She noticed maggots in one of them. Her skin crawled. The bed was not laid and several pieces of dirty clothes covered it. The only chair in their room was also filled with clothes. She recognised two trousers; they belonged to Akin’s younger brothers whose education he sponsored in different universities.

*

The dream picture she and Akin shared for the future never captured his brothers in them. They always seemed like intruders; always were. Indeed, Akin told her from the beginning of their relationship that he and his brothers were orphans and as he had taken the place of the father, she would become a mother to them all. However, there was this assumption that all the motherly care needed was to show affection and prepare them meals when they visited, and it did not seem a problem, but for the fact that the boys appeared to have found new meaning in those words. Whenever they visited the house, they stayed for a week – which was not a problem still. As she and Akin, slept on the bed and they found room somewhere on the sofa, floor or wherever. However, from the second day of their visit, they dropped their laundry and went to watch football or play video games or brought back some girls who usually had elastic blouse hugging their paw-paw breasts and tight jeans bundling their buttocks into a ball. They winked at her to excuse them, and it took only few minutes before she heard harsh moans and giggles from the room. She sat at the veranda until they left. There was some mutual agreement that she must never tell Akin, and she never did.

All the times they visited, since she began to live with Akin in their pretended marriage, she would at times stay through the evening washing clothes and sometimes ironing their clothes. They littered everywhere and begged her to please help out just once – which were every other time. When it was night, they kept her awake either from shouts of watching football or discussing the lives of relatives who abandoned them and whom they would show “pepper” when they became prosperous in future.

For a long time, Anu made herself believe she liked her brothers-in-law, she just found that with each visit she wished to avoid their stares, their smell, and the way they snored when they slept.  Until the last visit, she finally convinced herself she hated them.  It was before she fell ill. The youngest visited and brought out two bags of mud-dirtied clothes with a detergent.

“I am training to be an engineer. I will wash them tomorrow.”

He repeated this every day. The wet clothes made the room stink. Akin accused her of untidiness. He said nothing to his brother. One morning she woke up and took the clothes to the backyard and washed until evening.  At night, she went to bed, aching all over each night and got to work late, when she was supposed to anchor the visit of the educational officer from the Local Government. The new headmistress of the school never really liked her, and being late on an exam day seemed a good excuse for a sack.

Anu looked around the room and the picture of children numbering six scattered with mucus in different position about the room fleeted across. She screamed to herself, “God forbid!”           

*

            She looked around the room once again, moving the cable from her left hand to her right hand and sighed and threw it down as a rat ran between her legs. She jumped up, hitting her head against the doorpost as she hurried out of the room. She leaned against the door, gathering her thoughts. Then like she suddenly remembered something, she rushed back into the room and picked her phone.

“Isn’t it time to come home?” She barked into the mouth piece of her GSM phone.

“What?”

“Just answer, what time are you coming back home?”

“Sweetheart, are you home already?” He chuckled but she was not in a mood for jokes or anything close to it.

“Answer me! At least I found my way back home.” She was going to add that did he bring in goats to live with him.

“When I close from work. I’ll come home. Love you.”

“Yes? What did you say? Won’t you close from work before you head home before? Talk to me…” Anu, placed the phone an arm’s length and looked into the screen of the phone, only to realise that the phone was off, which meant she had been speaking into the air.

A thud beat on the left side of her head, and she ignored it. She waddled around the room and finally picked a broom from behind the door, dropped it on the floor again because it was uncomfortable to bend. She leaned on the wall, looked about the room and after a long breath, she began to pack the dirty dishes together into a bowl.  She dusted the cobwebs that hung down from the ceilings and the cleaning took one turn after the other, until the air coming in from the window hit her skin. She lay down on the bed to relax for a little while. The air cooled the damp on her forehead. She fell asleep and was soon dreaming of three men holding her down.

She dripped all over from four empty buckets that had been poured on her.

“You poured water on me? Why?”

“Our wife…you were in a deep other-world sleep.”

“Other-world sleep? What is that? Leave me, joor!” She shrugged, but it was a rather weak effort.

“Relax…”

“Leave me alone.”

“Are you okay, now? You scared us. We thought we had lost you.”

“I’m fine. Who are you?”

The exchange between maintaining her stability of mind, and they trying to verify that indeed she was fine carried on for a while, until she sneezed. She could not relate how this indicated her state of mind, but it made the men release her.

“Where’s my husband?”

“He’s fine? The Prince would be here soon”

“I mean Akin, my husband. Or do I have another one? Who is prince?”

“You are married to our brother: Prince.”

“Prince?” She whispered, looked into their faced to see if they were indeed sane.  Then she sat down on the floor, her mind tried to understand what was happening. Finally, she looked up at their faces to see if she could make a sense of what was happening. They were all smiling down at her. There was a calming feeling that accompanied the expression on their faces, so much that she felt a deep sense of belonging like she never felt before then. She found herself lowering her voice and speaking politely to them afterwards. There was a deep quiet in their touch, and he seemed to know just what she needed.

They brought out three flasks offering her; water, milk or cold sobo juice.

She chose not to drink.

“Please tell me what is happening. I can’t seem to remember anything.”

There was a short silence. The men looked at each other in the face. They were of varying complexion, all of the same height—about 6 inches 3 metres, and chins that pointed straight to the floor.

“Let’s go home first. Your memory would return, you will know.”

She hesitated, but when she found the confidence to look around her, she picked herself from the floor and followed the men through a bush path. Her mind again wandered for an explanation.

“How did I get here? What happened? Is this Lagos? Who is Prince?”

She was so deep in thought she did not look up to see the four-storey, all marble.

“You should come back.  This is where you truly belong.”

She looked up at the building and was so taken by the beauty of the architecture. It was not like anything she had ever imagined in her life. When she thought she was seeing a ball shape, it became a dice, then it became an airplane, and it occurred to her that the house could take the shape of anything she imagined. She wished for a second that her life could take any form she wanted.

“Where’s my husband?” She blurted. “Prince?” She wanted to know how she could have forgotten a man who built this sort of house for her, and remembered Akin who made excuses all the time and would not even the clean the house when she took some few weeks off.

The men were about to respond, when a voice that sounded like that of Barry White broke in: “How is my wife?”

She did not try to turn. She wanted to imagine his looks and indulge herself in the warmth that came with his voice. A hand touched her shoulder and she found herself swallowing spittle and muttering without control.

“My Lord…my friend…my husband.”

She still did not look up at his face. She just squeezed herself into him. His beards sponging her skin delicately and she let out small oohs.

“You will need to leave that world. This is where you belong.” He whispered into her ears, and she let out small sobs. In his arms, she felt all the things he gave her. All the things Akin dreamt of were here with her. A house that no dream could build; cars, a warm husband, loving in-laws…

“But it is past the time.”

“You are to go and come in that world.” He nodded his head and repeated, “You. Come. And. Go.” His gaze was intense, but she looked into his eyes and he continued to talk, “I know it is all confusing. Just remind yourself that your home is here with us and all will fall into place. Then the moment will bring you to us.”

She looked up into his face to explain that she felt the comfort no one had ever given her in her life, and when she caught his eyes, she did not want to look away. He was crying too.  She clung to him, her body quivering like a dog that slept in the open air during harmattan.

“Your parents are worried. We can’t see them at this short visit. And your friends…” Prince whispered.

“My parents?”

Anu stopped asking more questions, she placed her hands over her face and muttered out, “Prince, prince.”  She woke into the comfort of cool air blowing out the sweat on her skin. She was clutching the air.

She started to cry.

*

 “Up NEPA!” The scream from across the neighbourhood went on for a while.

Anu sat up on the bed from the noise. Waters settled on her lower eyelids.

Her bed was soaked with sweat also. She shook her head at the dream and herself: she was just tired and needed rest.

The ceiling fan rolled lazily and found balance in its turns. In few minutes, the loud noise from television sets and CD players bludgeoned the quiet she met when she came into the house. Voices of all sorts scattered about the neighbourhood—screams, shouts barks and undecipherable yells. Anu got up from the bed and locked the door. She returned to the bed, and tried to remember her dream, but particularly, her husband—the man in her dream—the face.  She shook her head. It was all nonsense.

The stench in the room rose into her nose. She thought of Akin who would return home soon. She wanted him to meet a clean room. Like a tease, her mind again reminded the image of that perfect life she saw in her dream. She thought over the words Prince spoke and was amazed she remembered: The moment will bring you to us.

“The bloody moment better come,” she muttered to herself, stood up from the bed and walked to the door to bolt it.

She wondered why Akin could not come home and clean his own mess. She was tired. Her hands, her head, her eyes, her legs needed rest.  She packed the clothes from the sofa and lay on facing the fan. The noise of the fan, as it rotated, banged continuously into her head.

Power was out as Akin returned home. He trod through the dimness slowly, guided by lights from few lights around. It was a dark night. Only few people put on their generators and the single light bulbs from these houses spread across the area like a lone star in need of companionship. It shone, but was not enough. As he walked closer to his house he remembered his wife was back from her father’s house. He smiled and walked joyfully to the bread seller. He was happy he would tell her about the new house that he got tonight. He stopped in front of a trader.

“Give me sliced bread.”

“How many?”

“Two.”

The woman bagged the breads in a bigger plastic and handed it to him. He walked home whistling and thanking God for the good woman in his life. She was a hardworking woman who never complained. Perhaps, a little grunt now and then, or some snapping when she was bored, but he knew how to curb that. All he did was become silent and she turned back to the uncomplaining wife he knew.

He had wanted to pick Anu from her father’s house, but the supervisor at work asked him to stay back at work and earn extra money for himself. He wanted to move into a self-contained apartment that week. It was something he saved for seven months now. He was tired of the one-room experience, and he wanted to begin the dreams he shared with Anu before they married, especially, when she lost her job. Soon, again he would save for the three-bedroom flat.

Akin walked swiftly, each of his steps, he thought of how neat his room would be at that point. She was a strong woman and she made everything seem so at easy. He would apologise for coming in late, and they would make up later in the midnight. His thighs throbbed.

“Welcome.” The trumpet-like voice of the landlord boomed into his ears. He was so consumed in his thoughts, that he had not noticed when he reached home. He climbed the make-shift steps and greeted the other people who were airing themselves on the veranda. He stood for a few minutes and talked about the electricity situation with the other tenants.

“It is worse now”—“One day on, one day off”—“Well, may God help us”—“They brought it today”—“really?”—“God help us o”–“You better go and rest.” ”— “We mustn’t kill ourselves with the power situation in this country.”

His neighbours interjected one another and spoke to him. He recognized each speaker by their voices, it was a little dim.

“OK-O. I’ll be out in a minute.” He walked towards his room, and then back again.  He moved towards the power generating set he kept behind his window, keeping up his conversation with the neighbours, by asking as he tried to start the machine. “Did anyone see my wife today?”

There was a long pause.

“Is she back? I thought she was sick and not around.”

“Yes. She’s better now. Why?”

“I saw her this afternoon,” the Landlord said and immediately started a conversation with the other tenants about how he was treated like a leper.

“No one would see your wife if not for you Akin. Your wife is just something else.”

Akin could not further his question with the landlord, so he returned to the door. It was locked from inside.  He knocked softly at first, muttering, “Open, Anu. It’s me.”

After a long period wait, and not wanting to bring his neighbours back into his affairs, he hit the door much harder. He moved back, and he hit the door the hardest, with his left leg and it flung open.

The smell of faeces filtered into his nose. He felt anger well inside him. He assumed that his Anu had not cleaned the room. He walked towards the fridge to light to rechargeable lamp, his body hit a hard object, but he ignored it, fumbling instead for the rechargeable lamp. The room was clean as he envisaged, but hanging neatly in a rigid pose was his wife down the ceiling fan with the cable he bought for rewiring the electricity in the new house.

He rushed out of the room and without saying a word, his eyes now accustomed to the darkness, he pulled the Landlord from his seat. The man did not ask question as the immediacy of the pull spoke more volume than words, that something was wrong. Other followed. Akin could not say anything. All the words he could ever speak clogged his throat and all he could make was a clucking sound.

As Akin and the Landlord, followed by the tenants who were at the balcony came into the room, power was restored.  “Up NEPA!” Rent the air as usually follows when power was restored in the neighbourhood.

In the room, the fan rotated slowly and was catching up momentum with Anu’s body revolving on it, solemnly at first and then with violent conviction the fan creaked of a weight too heavy for it. A thick cord of spittle flowed from Anu’s mouth, her bulging stomach stood rigid. She was like a hoisted statue.

The Landlord in a low voice said to no one in particular, “switch off the fan.”  He put his arm around Akin and led him out of the room.

First published by Nigeria Talk.

jumokeverissimoJumoke Verissimo is a Nigerian poet and writer. Her first book, I Am Memory, has won some literary awards in Nigeria. Some of her poems are in translation in Italian, Norwegian, French, Japanese, Chinese, and Macedonian.

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