It was fun the first night Ehinmore’s mother, Mavis, took him to Attie’s home, it was in January. She said it was a place he can stay and school until she can piece herself together, after the bitter separation from his father, and return.
“Where are you taking me to, are we going to your house?” Ehinmore asked.
Mavis drove Ehinmore in her red Mazda- she had explained over and over that Ehinmore can’t stay with her for the time being, she lived in a single room she shared with her friend and it will not be conducive for a child his age. “Where I’m taking you to you have to be obedient- No woman will treat you like your mother and it can never be like how it used to be when I was with your father. Also, I will also send money and visit too, not all the time, but remember it’s for a while,” Mavis said, glancing momentarily at Ehinmore and focusing again on the road.
“Where are you taking me to?”
Mavis sighed and did well to hide the exasperation in her voice. “I’m taking you to my sister’s house, she is not really my sister, Ehi, but when someone is Igbo like you address them as your brother or sister,”
“What is her name?”
“Everybody calls her Attie, or mommy, whichever makes you feel comfortable.”
It was at night time when Mavis got to where Attie lived. The house was a duplex. Mavis led Ehi up the staircase and knocked three times on the Black gate. A short Black boy answered the door almost like he stood there waiting. “Good evening, ma,” the boy said, and then welcomed Mavis and Ehinmore in. The boy was dark-skinned and his face had a look Ehinmore couldn’t place his fingers on, the look was of sadness and happiness, resolve, hope and hopelessness. He was hairy and had bushy unibrows, sideburns and hair on his lips that made him look like an adolescent adult, large nose and full lips. The boy was no taller than Ehinmore and well-built for his age. Ehinmore also couldn’t place what his age was but he seemed older than him, Ehinmore was eight years old. The boy took Ehinmore’s bag and arranged it by the door- he showed the visitors where to sit and then he disappeared into the house. Shortly after the boy appeared with a woman who came out beaming, another boy also came out of the house, a tall brutish teenager. Mavis smiled and got up when she saw the woman, “Attie, it’s nice to see you,” Mavis said, and then turned, “This is my son I told you about, Ehinmore.”
Attie approached Ehinmore and looked at him scrutinising although she retained the smile on her face. She was a brown woman of average height in her mid-sixties, accentuated more by observable strands of white in her hair. When Attie wasn’t smiling she had a permanent smirk on her freckled face like she was unimpressed. “This is my son, Osagie,” she said, gesturing at the boy who came out with her. Attie turned to Ehinmore, “Osagie will be your new big brother.”
Mavis laughed and patted Ehinmore on the back, “Did you hear her- you now have a big brother.” Ehinmore’s smile was wan but it brightened when Osagie asked if he liked video games.
That night Ehinmore played video games until his thumbs flattened. Attie offered Ehinmore food to eat but he refused because he was excited to play street fighters. Ehinmore never knew when his mother left and it dawned on him at midnight when electricity was seized. Ehinmore ran to the Parlour and hoped to see Mavis where she and Attie sat to talk but the cushions was empty save for his small hand luggage. Attie was there — she wore a white garment and sat on the floor reading from a Black leather-bound Bible.
“Attie, where is my mother?” Ehinmore asked.
“She went back to work. Don’t worry she will visit when she can but for now you stay with me and also start schooling when school resumes,” Attie said, without raising her head to look at Ehinmore.
“Attie, please ma, I’m hungry,”
“Food is finished. The rest I put inside the Fridge for later, when I gave offered you used me to play games.”
“But, I’m hun…gry…” Bile rose in Ehinmore’s throat, it burned when he tried to swallow, it burned until a tear came out of his left eye and nose peppered. Ehinmore looked ahead to the dining table where a hurricane lantern was turned low and saw bread on the milk container, there was Cocoa too and a big flask, like home. At home Ehinmore can always make a cup of tea and buttered up bread if he were hungry. It was with that confidence Ehinmore said: “Attie, can I make tea and eat with bread?” Attie closed her Bible and turned like Ehinmore said the most unforgivable thing. “Bread and tea are for breakfast and just look at the time,” she pointed at the wall clock “It is midnight, before you close your eyes and open it morning is here, take your bag in and go to bed, it’s late.”
When Ehinmore got inside he dropped his bag on the floor and cried. He wanted to go back to his father, or mother, wherever she stayed. To his old friends at his old school, Ehinmore never said goodbye. During the summer Ehinmore’s father, Mazi moved in his long-time mistress into his home and though he spent time with Ehinmore after work he soon never had such time. He forgot Ehinmore- it was him and his mistress, early mornings and late nights. It had been two years since Mazi drove Mavis out of his home because they fought every night he came home with other women scent on his clothes, prints of their mouths all over his lips. The same night Mavis drove Ehinmore to Attie’s home was the same day she went and snatched him before Mazi returned from wherever she went to. Ehinmore just wanted the life he was used to, he had never been so sad.
“Attie killed her husband but it’s not what you think, it was different,” Kene said. Kene was the short black boy who welcomed Ehinmore and Mavis when he newly arrived. Kene and Ehinmore crouched at a corner of the backyard filling a makeshift stove with sawdust to cook the evening meal. “One afternoon, just like that Attie’s husband ordered his driver to drive to the Train tracks, he alighted, took a walk down the road and banged his head on the rail until he bled to death,” Kene continued, stopping momentarily to check if anyone was coming. “They said Attie felt responsible, which was why she wears white and sits in the sitting room crying for forgivingness.”
“I didn’t know,” Ehi said, “She is my mother’s sister,”
“She is also my mother’s sister but it was what I heard, and true to it, every day she sits in the Parlour to pray and cry,”
“I saw her the night I first came, I was hungry and wanted to eat but she sent me away,”
“Sorry about that you might have to get used to it, it wasn’t so when her husband was alive, things were better than how they are now,”
“What really happened to him, do you know?”
Kene looked around with caution- when he was sure no one encroached in their conversation he stepped closer to Ehi. “Attie and her family had been members of the Celestial Church of Christ for protection, her Husband was Edo and a pilot for Nigerian airways and so he got spiritual guidance on when not to fly, it worked well for him that way. The only problem was Attie Husband was rich and all the women in the church wanted him, have you been to a Cele church before?” Kene asked and Ehinmore shook his head, “In church when the Aladura bounced his Shekere with zeal Attie resented how girls gyrated around her husband, and so she begrudged him until they left.” Kene got up and demonstrated with his behind how women danced and Ehi laughed. “On the wake keep Attie kept screaming, she said they had to be the one, his village people, they took him from her and the church could have seen it but she was insecure,” Kene said, “And that is why the morning and night devotion is important to her.” Kene finished with stuffing the stove as Ehi watched and then they placed the pot on it, stroked a match and then sat to watch the fire stabilise.
Morning devotion started with praise and worship, and then sometimes when in a hurry Attie said a short prayer, though most times she had time. Attie’s prayer session lasted for an hour or more, mostly on weekends, on school days she wrapped things up to save time. Attie prayer included warding off evil spirits, evil arrows, evil agendas, evil gatherings- she destroyed them with the blood of Jesus. By Six A.M. When Attie was done everyone was exhausted, sometimes Ehinmore fell asleep. At first, Attie tapped Ehinmore gently when he slept. “Join in the prayer, Nna, it is important,” she said “Amen is important so God answers, so he knows we agree.” But over time Attie woke Ehinmore with a smack on his back. Kene got more smacks because where he sat during devotions was right beside Attie.
“Have ever wondered why I don’t sit on the cushions when we watch television together, or when we pray?” Kene asked Ehi, they traipsed to buy garri for their afternoon meal. It was in the bushes where indigenous women stayed to process Cassava, two kilometres walk through bush paths that led to where they pitched tents in a field. Attie chose that place because they sold half the market price.
“No, I thought you liked the kitchen chair more,” Ehi said.
“When I first came I sat on the cushions anytime I liked, I did what I liked but one day I went to the toilet and didn’t clean my nyash, it stained the cushion and then Attie asked me never to sit on it again. She beat me for soiling the chair and gave me soap and water to scrub it. Also, I slept on the bed until she gave me the mat because I bed wet,”
“How old were you?”
“I was five when my mother brought me.”
Ehinmore’s noticed at night, after prayers, Kene spread a mat on the floor and slept. Sometimes Kene slept at the balcony where his belongings were kept. Ehinmore had woken to Attie beating Kene because of he bed wet, woke late, forgot to do assignments, forgot to take out the trash or wash the night dishes that made roaches run all over. In addition to not sitting on cushions Kene was not allowed to use the toilets, he was to use the small paint bucket reserved for him at the backyard. That was because one time he forgot to flush- he also took his bath downstairs early and at night, although Ehinmore knew no reasons why Kene wasn’t allowed to use the bathrooms. Kene had his own plate and spoon, cup, bucket and his own chair on the dining table. Kene ate last, slept last, worked the hardest and woke the earliest.
“Why does Attie treat you like that?”
“I don’t know why, but my mother hardly comes around to give her money for my wellbeing, my mother’s new husband doesn’t want me to stay with him, that’s why I’m here.”
“Attie gives me two types of meat and so far I haven’t done any serious work, maybe you did something that you are not telling me, and did you steal her money?”
“It is like that when you are new but wait,” Kene said, “Let’s walk fast- she might cane us if we are late and she has calculated the time it takes.”
“But this is the only time we have to play,”
Kene laughed, he had a playful rhythmic laugh that said he had been through a lot and that laugh- the free minute of freedom he had was precious.
It became a month Ehinmore began living with Attie. One morning, after prayers Attie called him into her room. “I think by now you are no longer a visitor in my house,” she said “From today you will assist this household and sweep the corridor of my room, down to the sitting room and then into the kitchen where you are to pack up and then do all the dishes in the sink,” Ehinmore said nothing- he only stared at her with furrowed brows. Attie continued, “You are only helping Kene today because he fetched water and swept the compound, he’s tired,” Attie said, and then Ehinmore left to do the chores.
The next day after prayers Attie called Ehinmore into her room again and repeated the same thing, but the second time she said it was Ehinmore’s chore from Mondays to Fridays. “Nothing changes on weekends, on weekend I expect you to scrub the floors after you sweep, and then wash the dishes before you can have breakfast, is that clear?” she asked.
“Yes Attie,” Ehinmore said and then left.
Soon, Ehinmore joined Kene and fetched Water, still swept the house and did dishes. Kene swept the entire compound after he fetched his quota of water the house needed on a daily basis. The compound was like Tennis court and had Mango trees tree in it. Kene told Ehinmore the workload reduces if more children came- “It was worse when you were not here I did all the work,” Kene said.
Chores had nothing to do with going to Church Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Attie was a Deaconess in her Anglican church and attendance was mandatory for her household. Or studying to pass exams, Attie made it clear that no one was a failure in her home. “Your parents aren’t struggling so you can end up with bad results!” was her mantra. Chores also had nothing to do with Osagie’s idle errands.
Osagie was a hunk of a boy, of lighter skin than Attie. His skin was like Cream added Coffee. He had full Pink lips that made him his boyish face feminine, he had small hands and then he kept nails. Osagie was a Teacher for the small Model Primary School Attie enrolled Ehinmore in, he taught per time pending his University applications. Osagie liked Football and trained every afternoon with his friend Gbenga, a tall dark skinned broad-chested boy who kept a ‘fro and wore mostly football clubs shorts. He lived on the other side of the compound with his family and visited every now and then. Osagie loved to play video games, especially his Nintendo, he loved Mario kart and liked to stay up at odd hours of the night to play or solve arithmetic.
Every night Osagie crept to where Ehinmore slept, woke and tried things with him. “Pour this body cream between your legs and lay on the bed,” Osagie said, the first night he ever came into where Ehinmore slept. Ehinmore woke and with bleary eyes acquiesced. Osagie returned every night to say the same thing, but it stopped when Attie came in one night and turned on the lights. Osagie jerked from where he lay between Ehinmore’s legs and searched the ground for something he never put there. Attie looked disgusted, she shook her head, turned and left the room. Osagie never returned after that, and everyone, even Attie carried on like nothing happened- according to Kene the other boys who came and left had similar experiences, he seemed to know a lot. Those uncanny events things were among what Ehinmore planned to tell Mavis when she visited. That way Ehinmore can be left alone to talk earnestly with his mother, unlike phone calls he had to receive in Attie’s presence. Ehinmore was going to tell his mother about the hard labour, poor sleeping hours, about the abuse and how he never got pocket money. Routines never changed in Attie’s home. If a chore was added, like when Attie said it was snail season, the time Ehinmore and Kene woke augmented.
Snail season came with the rains in April. Very early mornings or late at night was best to hunt them, they hid in old cement blocks in the bushes, Attie fried them and made Jollof rice. By April more children arrived, Chukwunaza the light skinned girl with beautiful grey eyes like an albino came to stay with Attie until her mother found a way to take her to America, away from her perverted stepfather who can’t resist carnal knowledge of her. Ebuka too, his father died and then his properties were divvied by uncles who spared nothing for him and his mother, she brought him to stay with Attie. Ebuka was a big boy, not like Osagie but almost. He was ebony, tall and had a permanent scowl. There was also Kosiso- he was Four years old, he had soft hands and feet and cried whenever Attie yelled. After morning devotion everyone spread out to do designated chores, but it was easier with more kids around. Everyone swept together, cleaned together and fetched water together, even Kosiso, Attie had a Lego bucket for him to trot along with. He wasted all the water, spilt it on himself as he got his feet tangled in complicated footsteps the water swayed him to. At a set time of Seven A.M, everyone had to leave for school.
Ehinmore came to appreciate the long school hours- it was the vacation from life, some peace. Football was enjoyable, running freely in the wind or when he sat inside the sliding house and enjoyed the noise of children like himself. School reminded Ehinmore of childhood.
Attie had always been a stay at home mum. A younger she was a Stockbroker but after marriage she quit and went to Fashion school after fashion school Attie decided to sew at home for friends and Church members only. Her husband, Efosa, was rich. He was so rich that while eating on the dining he hated spoons scraping plates- he never hesitated to ask if you wanted more. Prior to Efosa’s death, he acquired a number of assets he left in Attie’s name, but she lived like she barely survived.
What Ehinmore saw as unbearable suffering became too much for him to bear, he wanted to leave. Sometimes Ehinmore stayed up at night and cried and wished it will end, beside his bunk mates he had no real friends because Attie never permitted playing, free hours were used to study or go to church.
Things began to change- Chukwunaza stopped doing any chore that wasn’t cooking when Attie let her into the kitchen. She was in her senior class so naturally, they rubbed shoulders, she spent her time reading Harley Quinn novels and filing her nails and there was nothing Attie could do. Chukwunaza had Osagie to protect her because she let him on her bed at night- they were peas in a pod. Ebuka wouldn’t do anything too- he didn’t care to lift a finger and wouldn’t take orders. Attie flogged him until she got tired, she tried to manage his defiance but couldn’t, Ebuka almost hit her, he had his hands raised in the air but hesitated and returned it. That was the last straw, Attie called his mother to come for him.
“My mother cannot afford it but there is nothing she can do. She cannot take me with her because she is busy with work, and I don’t mind as long as I’m not with this wicked woman,” Ebuka said, to Ehinmore as he saw him off to his mother’s car. “My mother would come very soon,” Ehinmore replied Ebuka, unbelieving his own words. It had been months, two terms and Mavis was yet to visit. Ehinmore began to feel like Kene, he stopped dreaming about his mother visiting instead he focused on how to fill up the days that rolled by.
Chukwunaza left, too. At the end of the second-term, her visa cleared and her mother came for her. Kosiso followed, he was bubbly. Since he poured more water than he fetched Attie made him wash dishes instead, he wasn’t tall enough to get to the sink and so she asked him to take a stool and stand on it. Kosiso ended up breaking most of the tea cups and Attie yelled at him, but she never asked him to stop. When the children left it was like the beginning, Kene and Ehinmore doing all the chores.
Early-December and the harmattan came with its familiar chill and dust. The weather was warm and the trees gave out cool breeze that made dried leaves rustle about like thimbleweeds. Everyone prepped for Christmas.
Ehinmore and Kene busied tired hands with Ludo at the balcony. Ehinmore noticed a black pathfinder drove into the compound. In the passenger’s seat sat a woman, sun-kissed skin and on her body was a pretty little girl. A man sat groggily in the driver’s seat- he had his eyes covered with black shades.
“Can you see the car downstairs?” Ehi asked, disrupting the game. “I saw it but I am used to cars coming and going, maybe she is dropping off a new child for Attie- but don’t use that as an excuse because I’m winning,” Kene said, and then they continued with the game.
There was a sharp knock on the door and Kene got up to answer it. When he asked the person to come in she refused, instead, she cried with the little girl on her arm. The woman stood there until Osagie came out and then returned to fetch his mother. Attie came out of her room and shrieked. “Anna!” she said.
Anna and Attie discussed for hours in excited hushed tones like market woman gossiping about the price of goat meat in bush markets. After that, Anna openly announced that she came for Kene. Attie face changed countenance and her brows furrowed pugnaciously, she shook her head slowly. “He is a big boy and your husband might never accept another man’s fully grown son, you better use your head, Anna,” she said.
“I explained everything to him- that is his driver downstairs to take Kene with me,” Anna said.
Attie begged, she cried. “Please Anna you can’t do any such thing,” she said, “After all these years?”
“It doesn’t matter how long I took as long as I came back, I brought as many foodstuffs as he ate all the years he has been with you, and money,”
“Jesus! Kene is my hands and legs you can’t take him anywhere, please Anna, Anna biko,”
“You tried your best, Attie- ten years Kene spent with you and he never knew he had a sister. I would take it from here.”
Attie roared and pulled Kene’s arm as Anna carried his belongings and dumped in the boot of the Pathfinder. It took Osagie to restrain Attie from grabbing Kene out of the car and taking him back upstairs with her. “He has stayed with you long enough, if I were dead it should be legal for him to bear your surname and be your son, Attie, he would visit don’t worry. I’m sure Kene hasn’t had enough of you,” Anna said. Anna sarcasm was polite, a way to give hope no matter how bleak. She gave Attie a hug and a pat on her back. Kene put up a small show and acted like he didn’t want to leave. “Attie I don’t want to go, I don’t want to leave you please,” he said, but Anna shoved him back into the car. “Ehinmore!” Kene called, “Ehinmore take care,” he said and waved.
When Kene left sometimes Ehinmore looked from the balcony and cried for no reason, he missed him. There was a time Attie starved everyone because the pump that sold water never opened. Ehinmore were so hungry that Kene stole bread from a shop. And that was Kene for anybody, he told good lies on their behalf. Those unselfish lies people told that didn’t benefit themselves. Also the times they spent together, memories they had how they talked about how good things used to be with their families. Ehinmore wasn’t alone, Attie too genuinely missed Kene despite all the names she had called him in the past and all the beatings she pounded hard on his thick body. Attie taught Kene all her tricks for the past ten years and became codependent on him as her hand boy. She went into a state of depression and still cried at night over her dead husband. There was nobody to bring her soup, or play Ludo with her. Nobody was there to shade her as she slept at the balcony or massaged her legs. Those times Ehinmore stayed very far away and did all he had to do without being told.
Two days to Christmas, it was a Saturday and Ehinmore had just scrubbed the flat. Breakfast was two slices of bread and fried eggs, a food Ehinmore ate with the unsatisfied demeanour of Oliver twist. Eating happened too fast and Ehinmore hated it, he always wanted more. Just as Ehinmore were about to eat the last piece of bread there was a knock on the door. Ehinmore got up and answered it, it was Mavis. Ehinmore was excited — he jumped on Mavis and pulled her to the ground. Mavis was hysterical. Ehinmore took her hand and pulled her inside, he needed to tell her everything. Attie came out with a horse whip to know what the commotion was but she saw Mavis and Attie Eyes softened; she smiled wide and sweet until her face almost split in half. Attie collected all the bags Mavis came with, they went into the kitchen and made more food. That day Ehinmore ate to his fill- Ehinmore ate and got so full that he couldn’t fight sleep.
When Ehinmore woke your mother was still around.
Mavis came with the news — she found a nice apartment in a quiet neighbourhood, and also a secondary school Ehinmore was to start with in January. Mavis packed Ehinmore’s bags then took him to the bathroom and scrubbed Ehinmore herself. When she saw cane marks on his body she wept. She wept like silence was more golden than Ehinmore hearing her cry, it was solemn, private, restrained in dignity and because she held in so much her face reddened. After the bath, Ehinmore changed into clothes she brought. As Ehinmore dressed up Mavis grumbled about how skinny he looked despite how much she sent monthly.
On the way to where Mavis Mazda was parked Aunty had a dour smile on her face. Mavis genuflected and thanked Attie. “Chukwu gozie gi o, chai, chineke nna gozie gi maka inhe e mere’m, le ahu Ehinmore, look at his skin and his body, O’maka ofunma, it’s beautiful, chukwu goziegi inugo? God bless you so much for me,”
“I would miss him, very hardworking and smart boy, you know Kene my other boy has gone, Ehi is the closest to what Kene can do, and I’m alone now in my old age, Osagie leaves for University soon.”
“God is with you, Attie. And Osagie, please stay with your mother and take care of her.”
“Ehinmore, remember everything I taught you,” Attie said.
“Yes, Attie,” Ehinmore turned and hugged her before entering into the car. Mavis thanked Attie again, and then she slid into the car and drove off.
Originally published on Medium.