“I don’t even know why I married you in the first place – not that you’re handsome or even rich,” my mother said, scowling as my father stared at her and sat heavily on the spring chair in our sitting-cum bedroom.
He laughed briefly and slurred. “You liked what you saw. That was why you left all the handsome and rich men and married a poor, ugly man like me.”
Her forehead furrowed even more, tip of her tongue thrust through her teeth, something she always did before spanking me or my elder sister, Lamishi. She glared at him and walked into the inner room.
Lamishi appeared from the inner room, dragging her feet along, yawning and frowning.
Father looked at her, then at me. His eyes sleepy, but he struggled to keep them open. He belched loudly and tapped his chest twice. “How … you?” he belched again. “My…my children… are you?”
Lamishi looked at him from the corner of her eyes as she sat on the edge of the iron spring bed. She did not answer him.
“We’re fine,” I finally said.
“Don’t mind me and your mother,” he mumbled, his eyes seeming to come out from their sockets, red and watery.
Lamishi lay down in the bed, causing it to squeak as the springs under the flat mattress stretched.
“You…” he pointed an unsteady index finger at me. “Won’t you go to sleep?”
I looked at him quietly. Each time he came back home like this, belching and popping his eyes, mother would not bother to bring him food. He would sit on this particular chair, the one by the door to the inner room. He would belch and belch. When mother came to make trouble, he would smile or laugh. She would be outraged because he never seemed to take her seriously. She would stand over his head and rain insults on him till he would be forced to say something and that which he would say always, always sent her into the inner room, crying.
I looked at him, because I could not fall asleep. The dim, orange light from the kerosene lamp faintly lit his face. He was still belching, swallowing hard, stretching his long neck and fidgeting his fingers around his knees and the wooden arm rest of the decrepit chair.
Lamishi was still awake, too, I guessed. She kept tossing and turning, hissing like a provoked snake.
First week after vacating for the long holiday, we were all in the village, Zhewun. Our grandfather sent one of our uncles, Filibus, to go catch one of his local roosters for our grandmother to make lala[i] soup. Lamishi and I followed uncle Fili in excitement.
When we got back into the compound, breathing hard with uncle Fili holding the rooster by its wings, grandfather looked closely at the rooster and frowned. “Nge[ii] – thank God I came out,” he exclaimed, eyes widened.
Uncle Fili looked at the rooster in his hand, lifted it up a bit. He shot a questioning glance at grandpa.
“What’s wrong with you?” Grandpa said. “Don’t you know all the fowls in this house?” he did not wait for uncle Fili to respond. “This rooster is not ours – it’s from Tanimu’s house.”
Uncle Fili looked at the rooster again in his hand, surprised.
Grandpa moved closer. “This is not ours – can’t you see the red piece of cloth on the rooster’s leg?”
Uncle Fili raised the rooster to his eye level. “Oh. That’s true.” He scurried out of the compound. We made to follow him again, but grandpa called us back. “Find a place and sit, you restless children.”
The thirst that I did not pay attention to earlier now seemed to be draining me up. I made for my grandma’s room where I had seen my mother enter, just before we went out for the rooster search and chase with uncle Fili.
“How long will I keep talking about the same thing and he will not change?” I overheard my mother say, as I stepped into the small room. “Can’t he change even for one day? Haba[iii]!”
My grandmother, whose hand rested warmly around my mother’s shoulders, looked up in my direction. She had this look on her face that made me realise their discussion was not a happy one.
Mother quickly wiped away tears from the corner of her eyes with the edge of her wrapper, the lemon green, floral one her younger brother, Paul, had brought for her about two Sundays ago.
“Mama, I want water,” I said, standing a few meters away from the door. Just the three of us, plus the iron bed that they were sitting on seemed to have filled the room. I wondered if that was the reason the floor of the room was broken in most parts, because the room was so small and just three people made it look overloaded.
Grandma tapped mother on the back. “Please go and give him.” Mother stood up.
Grandma looked at me closely and smiled. “See how much he looks like his father.”
“God forbid!” mother snapped. “He can’t be like his father! Never! All this one that he always takes last position in his class must change!”
“Excuse me?” Grandma stared at her in disbelief. “Has anyone told you that his father used to take last position in his class?”
Mother let out a suppressed hiss, held my hand and dragged me along out of grandma’s room.
Grandpa, grandma and my father sat on a mat in front of dugwe[iv]. Father had a sheepish look on his face while his parents looked disturbed. They were all speaking in Gbagyi and I could barely make anything out of their tensed conversation or argument or quarrel.
Mother sat some distance away in front of grandma’s room, shaking her head lightly, her legs crossed and her arms folded across her breasts.
Lamishi sat on a short log of wood in front of the kitchen, eating pounded yam with lala soup, enriched with the local chicken that grandma had cooked. She loved food, Lamishi. No matter the trouble around her, she would eat.
Grandma shot a glance at me as if she had just noticed that I was there all along. “What are you doing here?”
Grandpa threw a somewhat surprised look at me. “Go and sit there with your mother, since you don’t want to eat,” he said.
My father had his head down. He seemed to be sobbing now, for I saw him rub his arm over his eyes.
The day we returned to Jos, grandma asked my mother to go into her store and fetch some rice, beans, yams and guinea corn.
When mother had finished fetching and brought them out one after the other, grandma came. “What is this you’re fetching like it’s holy communion?” She seized the sack from my mother, went back into the store and filled it with grains so much she could not lift it up. “Tell Lamishi to go call Fili. He’s weeding at the backyard.”
Lamishi was nowhere close. “Pambalo, go and call uncle Fili,” Mother said to me.
Grandma always did that each time we came to the village. She would load us with so much food stuff that even getting a vehicle was always a challenge. The vehicle owners who would be willing to carry us and our load would ask for extra fare for the load.
“She’s the one who’s spoiling this man,” I often heard some of my uncles and aunts in the village say. “When she always loads him with so much food stuff, what will he be using his salary for?”
Grandma had a different kind of love for my father. Her love for him was so tender, kind and ever so forgiving in spite of the many vices of his that mother complained to her about.
I had once overheard my mother say a similar thing to my father in one of their episodes. She said, “your mother is the one who has spoilt you silly – she doesn’t seem to be so hard on you the way she is with the rest of your siblings. She should have married you herself, since she didn’t give you enough training to be a responsible man!”
“Please, don’t involve my mother into this,” Father had said, slouching. “You can insult me all you want, but don’t insult my mother. I beg you.”
While mother harboured some disdain for grandma, blaming her for my father’s misdemeanours, grandma also had a suppressed suspicion for my mother. I had also once overheard her tell grandpa that, “my son has been a good Christian all his life, till he met with this woman in Lagos and brought her here for us to see that everything about him changed. He has stopped going to church immediately after their wedding.”
“Stop saying things like this,” Grandpa had replied. “Have you been with him in Lagos to know how he leads his life there? Don’t let God get angry with you for false accusation.”
“Let God get angry now – where was he when they corrupted my son?” Grandma retorted.
Grandpa kept quiet. He walked to the chair and sank into it, chewing some kola nut.
We were back in Jos, and I hated it. I hated it because these episodes would resume. As a 12-year-old, I hated it. I hated my father for always coming home late, staggering and falling over many things. I hated him for coming home late, sprawling in his favourite chair and belching. I hated him for always coming home with bruises around his face, knees and elbows. I hated him for that bad, stale smell that constantly accompanied his breath. But I also hated my mother for always picking a quarrel with him. I hated her for always raining insults on him and making abusive references to his mother, only for him to respond with just one statement – just one statement, and she would coil back into the inner room and start to cry.
Just a day after returning from the village, father was at it again. As if to make up for lost time, he had to be supported by two of our gossipy neighbours, Haruna and Pam, who heaved him by the shoulders into our room, bringing along with them some putrid smell of gutter. He seemed barely conscious as they lay him gently on the bed.
“He fell inside the gutter by the gate,” Haruna said, cringing at the patches of mud he had gotten from my father’s gutter-stained clothes.
Mother glared at father, then at them as if they were the cause of such embarrassment or her humiliation. She did not even say a ‘thank you’ to the young men. They walked out quietly, both cringing at their clothes.
“You people should come sleep in the inner room with me,” Mother said to us, her eyes still on father who sprawled quietly in the bed.
The usual thing was for me and Lamishi to sleep on the bed in the sitting-cum bedroom while father and mother slept in the inner room, whether or not they had a fight before retiring for the day.
He usually sat on his favourite chair for a long time and only joined her in the inner room after Lamishi and I had fallen asleep. We would only wake up in the morning and realise that he had gone into the inner room to sleep.
“Just look at your stinking self, shameless idiot!” mother’s voice, from the sitting room, woke me up. “See the little boys that brought you in here last night – boys young enough to be your children.”
I didn’t hear a word from father. I sat up on the bed, turned and looked at Lamishi. She was still asleep.
“Look at Baban[v] Haruna, an illiterate man. He’s almost finished building his own house. You have been doing government work for over 18 years. It’s the same things I met you with that are still here, falling to pieces. You haven’t added anything new in this house – not even a bedsheet.”
“Do you know how much he’s earning as a staff of ECWA Rural Development? That’s a private company, in case you don’t know the difference,” I overheard my father say.
“Abeg[vi] shut up! Who’s supposed to be doing better? An educated government worker or an illiterate private employee?”
I reluctantly came down from the bed and walked to the sitting room, staring at them.
“This is too early, Lamishi ya[vii]. Will you stop comparing me with other men?”
“What kind of dead man are you? Nothing challenges you to change for the better? It would have been better for us if you were dead. At least people will know that my children don’t have a father!”
I stared at her and wondered. Is it my father that you’re calling a dead man or wishing dead?
“Yes, I’m a dead man. Why won’t you go and marry a living man? It takes a dead woman to stay with a dead man.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s my fault for marrying an ugly, dirty, irresponsible man like you!”
Those words pierced through my heart like a hacksaw. I gawked at mother. She looked back at me. “What’re you doing here? Will you get back into the room?”
I crawled back into the room, my heart falling apart like a punctured, expired windscreen.
“You’re a shameless man,” she continued just as the curtain fell behind me, “always depending on your mother for food stuff to feed your family. That’s why every single opportunity you have, you’ll take us to your village.”
“Well, maybe because your own parents never have anything to give us each time we go visiting them.”
“Keep drinking your life away with your money and be waiting for your parents to give you food stuff for your family – You’re such a responsible man!”
“I’m still alive today because I drink and the alcohol is kind enough to soothe my mind always – you’d have killed me with your nagging and satanic insults.”
Lamishi, too, had awoken now. She sat in the bed with her chin in her palms, as if that was enough to shield her hearing from the commotion going on in the sitting room.
Lamishi always had a disdainful look for father, especially whenever mother was around.
The following day I was in class as my Biology teacher stood in front of the black board. She was saying something and drawing some diagrams on the board. I didn’t even remember her face. Her protruded stomach made her look like a kangaroo. She moved around lazily like a snail.
So, is this how I didn’t have a choice?
…have a father and a mother that were like a dog struggling to eat an oversized bone?
What am I even doing in this class room?
Well, are they even our parents?
Maybe they’re always quarrelling because they have a son like me who is so ugly and dull!
Nge, why is this kangaroo-looking teacher staring at me?
“Are you dumb? Shekwopambalo, you’re the one I’m talking to.” I didn’t know she had pointed at me and asked me to answer a question. “…define the skeletal system.”
I felt like I had been yanked awake from sleep. “Ma…?”
“Stand up,” the teacher said, walking towards me. “Are you okay?”
It was then that I realised the whole class was looking at me.
“Why’re you so absent-minded in my class?” She turned and looked at the class. “Is my teaching boring?”
“Nooooooo ma,” came a chorus answer.
She turned and looked at me again. “Are you having any problem?”
After a long pause, she said, “okay, you’ll remain standing. After my lesson, you’ll come out and repeat every single thing I say. And you’ll draw every single diagram.”
I didn’t answer. I frowned.
She went back towards the blackboard and continued, “the skeletal system is…” the rest of the lesson, again, was repelled by many different, stubborn thoughts that kept juggling haphazardly in my head.
Of course, I had to serve a punishment after the lesson. I couldn’t remember a thing. The teacher gave me ten lashes on my calves and ordered me to kneel in front of the class room and raise my hands, some of my class mates smirking.
After the school hours, I confronted one of them, the one I knew I should be able to beat. “Why were you laughing at me?”
“Why?” He laughed. “It was the way you were staring at the teacher like a dummy.”
I punched his nose, then his mouth. He staggered and managed to dodge from my third swipe and took to his heels, crying.
The following day, I was suspended from school. When I came back home before closing hours, my mother seized me by the collar of my uniform and started to beat me up. “You want to be a useless man like your father, abi[viii]? Why’re you coming back home at this hour?”
I hated myself for being born into this family. Our trouble was like the movement of the sun, unending.
My suspension lasted only three days. Again, at the end of this term I took the last position in my class. Reluctantly I returned home feeling dull and stupid.
When my father arrived home, he requested to see my result sheet. Reluctantly I brought it out. He yanked it from my hand, took a long, pensive look at it, and then threw it back at me, disappointed.
The evening of that day was unusual. My father was sprawled quietly on his favourite chair the whole day. I did not want to believe it was because of my poor result from school. He should have been used to it by now.
“This dead man,” mother said on her way out of the inner room, “what are you still doing at home by this time?”
He did not respond, nor did not even look up at her.
She paused and observed him. “There is no money to go and drink, abi?”
Lamishi came out from the inner room, holding a knife and an okra that she was cutting. “Baba doesn’t sleep like this.”
Mother observed him once again, moved closer and tapped his hand. He didn’t move. She tapped his shoulder and then he suddenly slouched to the other side of the chair, his hand dangling.
Mother looked alarmed. “What is it?” She glanced at Lamishi and then back at him. “What do you think you’re doing?” No response.
Lamishi dropped the knife and okra on the floor and raised his head to see his face. “Baba, are you okay?” She shook him desperately. “Baba!”
Mother took his hand, held him by the wrist for a while. She glanced at Lamishi, glanced at me and then drew the motionless hand to her chest and raised her head, eyes closed tightly.
[i] A northern Nigeria soup made of dry sesame leaves.
[ii] An exclamation in Gbagyi language which can be translated as “what!”
[iii] An exclamation in Hausa language.
[iv] Sitting room or parlour.
[v] Hausa word for “Father”
[vi] A broken English which means “I beg you”
[vii] Gbagyi word for “mother”
[viii] A pidgin English word for “isn’t it?”
ALEX ABESADU B. BYANYIKO
is a Nigerian. He worked with the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) Abuja from 2009 to 2016 when he resigned to pursue his passion in independent writing and film making. One of his short stories was published by The Kalahari Review in 2019, another one with This is Abuja in 2020. Alex has also published a series of articles with The Niche, an online newspaper in Lagos, Nigeria, and The Kalahari Review. He wrote 24 episodes of drama scripts for Akeem Sanni, a Kaduna-based producer and for The National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives. Alex has produced some documentaries, short films and some music videos. He is an active member of the Abuja Writers Forum (AWF).