By Cuba Ukoh (@CubaUkoh)
She sits there telling me to go make sure the dog house is shut when we all know Bingo is let out by seven thirty every evening. Father doesn’t say one word. He gives her a look instead, it’s passing but slow. They always exchange a trail of looks, even at church. It is always more intense than their bickering, these looks.
She lets a few minutes simmer then she orders me to go clear her wears from the clothesline, even though they’re still wet, because Bingo will soon rip them, like the last time. I give a fleeting glance at the clock, it’s almost eight.
I walk out calm but once I have shut the door, I do it all in a flash that then when I return my breath is still racing. Three minutes to eight. She waits for me to pass the dinning before she remembers she is much too thirsty, this woman. I want to roll my eyes but instead I smile.
She’s taught me how to make a smile hurt. When there is no soul to a smile, deficient sincerity turns it stiff. Then the muscles around your lips begin to twitch, dance, frantic to depart from this facial lie. Many a twitching smile I have lied to this woman.
I return with a full glass beaded with cold water sweat. After a sip, she feigns a migraine and scolds me to dilute it. I glance again, a minute to eight. At the filter I think to myself, what if I could just spit inside?
Just as I sit back down and Tega rests his head on me, she says aloud how the lights need to be dimmed. Who else could she be talking to? Tega is too young to reach the switch, and Father?
I heave and get up again. It is my breath screaming how I cannot stand her … this woman. She acts like she doesn’t notice but I can feel her eyes all over my body, calculating like a crocodile’s, waiting for me to make a mistake so she can transfer her anger to me. But I do not give her the opportunity.
Her stare follows me like she has found a neighbourhood thief on the prowl. And I never stole a thing from this woman. Not her jewelry or her weaves, not five naira. Not a freckle, dimple or crease from her face. Sometimes, I doubt she brought me into this world.
I only bear traces of Father and then the rest of me just … hovers. A question mark is my reflection in the mirror every morning when I dress for school. I feel often like the piece you force into a puzzle gap, waiting for a little more meaning to appear. But I have never asked why I do not look a day like my mother. We cannot say these types of things in my house. But we think them.
The clock strikes eight and the soundtrack to Esmeralda at last filters in with that profound comfort of a Spanish guitar. It streams with the tearful voice of a lonely woman singing. We do not know the meaning of the words but the song brings us to a pensive start every evening.
Most nights I sing it all in my head, thinking to myself how I would have understood the words if she let me stay at my former school where they thought us Spanish, and French. Tega sings it all through, pronouncing every word utterly incorrect.
Father hums with the weary smile that follows him home from work and she sits there on her favourite chair, sipping her water and singing along to random parts of Esmeralda. She thinks she can sing. I chuckle and shake my head, this woman.
We have never missed an episode of Esmeralda since its first season. The lead character, Esmeralda, has come to feel like a family member, lost to the Diaspora.
Tega whispers he will grow up and marry Esmeralda after he becomes a successful inventor but he’s still young and foolish so I refuse to take away from his childhood by telling him how our favourite soap opera is from as far back as the mid-nineties and he would probably grow up to marry Esmeralda’s granddaughter, if he can find her when wishes are horses. I just smile and pat his head.
The next hour is spent in silence watching and gasping at the melodramatic mini disasters ultimately inflicted by Don Alejandro and the close calls that almost reunite the beautiful Esmeralda with her beloved Diego Sanchez who happens to be the estranged son of the cruel Don Alejandro and his hideous distracting moustache.
And then the clock strikes nine. The woman in solitude returns, singing to the Spanish guitar again. She ferries us back to our parlour. As though it wasn’t him flinching at the unfortunate twists in tonight’s episode, Father’s head bows back to his newspaper, until sleep sways a gentle nodding. She goes to her room for a beauty routine and Tega excited to have the remote watches cartoons until the noise burps Father awake and he remembers it’s passed Tega’s bed time, so he scolds him goodnight.
From the kitchen, I hear the news channel come on. I’m washing our dinner dishes. Afterwards, I turn off the idle lights around the house and go to her room.
“Yes, enter,” she replies my knock.
There’s a whitish cream all over her face.
“Goodnight Mummy,” I smile. By now you know the smile?
Smiling back in the same way, she says, “Eheh,”
I walk to the parlour to meet Father. “Goodnight Daddy,” I have to say it twice because he’s in between our world and that of dreams.
“Goodnight,” his smile is more sincere, but dreary.
When I turn around he mumbles, “Say your prayers.”
Tega isn’t sleeping of course. I meet him playing a video game. If there’s a fight at home that night, I’ll find him sobbing. He has a lot to say, too much perhaps. But he doesn’t talk when he’s playing video games or when we are public. So people often say to me, that your quiet brother!
I don’t switch off the light because he’s frightened by the dark though he pretends not to be. I remind him to go to sleep before ten and we say goodnight.
My bed is a delight. I recap Esmeralda once more in my head. I just know for certain she’ll end up with Diego Sanchez. Good always triumphs in soap operas. Poor Esmeralda, she lives in a crooked shed with her mother who is her only company.
To think she had once come from wealth, then cheated out her inheritance after her father’s death. She reminds me of my friend Benita who’s got long hair, almost like Esmeralda’s. She lives in a little house with her mother and I think she walks to school really because she can’t spare her lunch money for transport.
To think her father lives in comfort just on the other side of town! Her parents are divorced, poor girl. Her father used to beat her mother to pudding. Back then, Benita would always come late to school crying.
Our other friend Ijeoma told me she now sees Benita’s mother with a younger looking man at her Aunt’s restaurant, laughing, eating, they even hold hands. It’s not so sinful as it is improper; a mother with a boyfriend!
My Parents always argue but I have never seen Father lift a finger on that woman. But we do have to change our china quite often because when Father is angry or insulting us, he shoves them to the floor or smashes them on the wall above our heads. Most times, minuscule particles hurt our feet in secret cuts the following day. But is it Father’s fault that china breaks to sprinkled crumbs?
He has become more withdrawn these days that I fear Tega might imitate him more. But Father thinks differently. He scolds Tega often for being thoughtless like his mother. Mother has her own thoughts. She warns Tega to improve in schoolwork if he doesn’t want to end up like his father who is managing to speak English.
She shouldn’t say these things! One day someone might overhear and discover Father never graduated secondary school. And what would we do with such embarrassment if jealous people decide to use it against us? That would be the day Father would perhaps beat her. Or worse, divorce her. Just before slumber takes me away, I remember to thank my stars that we are lucky to keep a complete home. What if I were in Benita shoes?
“Esmeralda” by Cuba Ukoh was highly commended in Sentinel Nigeria’s All-Africa Short Story competition, 2013.