It was a Thursday evening and we were coming from the weekly Farmers’ market when I saw the car parked in front of our house; it was black and shiny. I turned to my younger brother Akpan, we exchanged looks and he was also wondering who it could be. He dropped the basket that held the few potatoes that were left from the day’s sales and ran towards the car to look at it closely. He had always been fascinated with cars. There was a man in the driver’s seat and he shot Akpan an angry look as he ran his hands across the car doors.
I picked up the basket and went into the house. Inside, I could hear voices from the living room. I put my ear close to the door and could hear my father’s low deep voice, “Yes that is fine with me,” he said to someone else who I couldn’t see.
“I can assure you everything will be taken care of,” the faceless voice said.
This piqued my curiosity, “what was being taken care of?” I thought to myself. Just then, I heard my mother humming to herself in the kitchen and it occurred to me that I had not even gone in to greet her. I had assumed she was in the living room with the visitors. I turned to go into the kitchen.
“Good evening Mama.”
“Eh, my daughter, how are you? How was today’s market?” she asked looking down at the basket in my hands.
“It was good Mama. We sold nearly all the potatoes.”
“Ah, that’s good. You have to help me finish this soup so I can quickly prepare the fufu for our visitors.”
“Who are they Mama? I saw a car outside.”
“You remember Mrs. Udofia from the church. That’s her niece’s car. She’s visiting from Lagos.”
“Oh.” I said just because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
I continued stirring the Edikang Ikong soup on the kerosene stove but couldn’t help but wonder why Mrs. Udofia would be visiting. She always seemed so aloof in church. I don’t even think she ever said hello to my parents and now she was in our house and we were making dinner for not just her but her niece too. Mother finished making the fufu and wrapped some in four cellophane bags while I dished the soup into a bowl. She saw me doing this and quickly snatched the bowl from me.
“But Mama…” I started.
“No, no, no. We can’t use that one. Take the special enamel one in the cupboard.”
You see, my mother has ‘special’ plates, cutlery, cups, and bowls that we only use at Christmas and when we have very ‘special’ people (e.g. my father’s cousin living in America) visiting. If I had any doubts about how important Mrs Udofia and her niece were, that single gesture by my mother completely erased every doubt from my mind. I quietly reached for the ‘special’ bowl and served the soup. I made to carry the tray to the living room but mother stopped me and looked to see if everything was in order before she gave me the go-ahead. I rolled my eyes and was slightly disappointed at how she was behaving, but little did I know.
I stepped into our tiny living room that also doubled as a dining room, to see Mrs Udofia and another lady seating on the single sofa, while my father sat in his favourite rocking chair in the corner. Mother sat on a chair by the door.
“Good evening Ma.” I greeted them and turned to father, “Good evening Papa.”
“Hello my dear.” Mrs Udofia. Papa just grunted in his usual way.
I set the tray on the stool mother had placed before them.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have bothered really. We are not going to be staying for long.”
“Ah, it’s no problem at all. Please you have to eat something.” mother said smiling.
“Azari, I don’t think you’ve met my niece. This is Millicent.”
“Millie.” her niece interrupted. “Just Millie,” she said smiling at me.
I smiled back. I liked her already and I thought ‘Millie’ was a nice name.
“Well, she works in Lagos but she’s visiting me. She’s always busy so I’m happy to see her.” Mrs. Udofia kept talking as if she had not been interrupted.
My father cleared his voice the way he does when he wanted to get things back in order. “Please get us some water to wash our hands.” he said nodding towards me.
I headed into the kitchen, picked the first bowl that I saw, filled it with water and returned back to the living room. The look my mother gave me was enough to kill me, and then I realised my mistake, I should have used one of the ‘special’ bowls. Oh well, the deed was done, I shot her a smile and I knew I was going to pay for it later. They rinsed their hands and were about to start eating when Millie asked for a fork. My parents looked surprised but I wasn’t. There was just something about her that I guessed she would be like one of those women on TV that I always wanted to be like. You know, classy, pretty and smart.
I headed to the kitchen to get the fork and mother like lightning shot after me. She was not going to risk me embarrassing her twice. She reached into the cupboard and got out a shiny fork that looked very new and handed it to me with so much force I was surprised she didn’t prick me with it. She stared at me in a way that said “You are trying me and you’ll be sorry” and then went back to join our visitors.
The guests and father ate their food while my mother waited on them. I stayed just behind the curtain and I could hear Millie asking my mother to join them, but she declined. They finished eating and I went in to clear the dishes. After some minutes they made to leave and as they thanked my mother for a lovely dinner I heard my father say “Ah, you wait till you try my daughter’s food, you’ll know we taught her well,” he said laughing heartily.
I thought to myself, “Are they coming back to eat here tomorrow or what? Or what’s this talk about ‘trying my daughter’s food’” I continued washing the dishes and Akpan came in through the back door.
“Where have you been?” I asked him.
“I was at Ali’s house.” Ali is our neighbour’s son and is quite inseparable from my brother. People even joke that they might have been twins in their first life.
Papa and Mama came back into the house and were whispering. I wondered if they were gossiping about our guests that just left but discarded the thought as Papa was strongly against talking about anyone – either good or bad.
“Azari!” I heard him shout my name.
“Yes Papa!” I answered and hurried quickly to the living room while drying my hands on my skirt.
“Sit my daughter.” he said pointing to the sofa.
I was confused because no one sat when father was talking to them. I looked at mother and she quickly averted her eyes. Immediately, my palms felt sweaty and I knew something was going on. It felt like the time when they had called me to tell me I couldn’t continue going to school as they could not afford it anymore. I saw that pained look in mother’s eyes and it was the same thing she had done when they broke the news to me. But I had understood because money had always been a struggle for them. However, now I wondered what could be happening.
Papa cleared his voice, “I have something to tell you. I think God has finally answered your prayers – to go back to school. You see that woman, Udofia’s niece that was here just now is an angel from God. She has offered to help with your education if you come to Lagos with her. You’ll live with her in her house, help with the chores and if you do everything she asks you, you’ll start school in six months.” he finished his short speech and leaned back in his chair.
I didn’t know if I was supposed to be happy or sad because first of all, I was not praying to go back to school and secondly, I did not want to go to Lagos. I had heard too many stories about that city that I knew that was certainly not where I wanted to be.
“But Papa…” I started but couldn’t get the words together. Mother came to sit next to me and hugged me. I looked at her and it was like looking in a mirror. People always marvelled at the resemblance: the cheek bones, big round eyes, thick long hair and petite figure.
“My daughter,” mother said as she placed both hands to frame my face, “you will get a better life than we can ever give you. You are still young, you are beautiful and your future is bright. This is an opportunity. Take it.”
I didn’t think of it that way but when she said the words it made sense. But I couldn’t shake the feeling of unease and it was like mother sensed this, “Everything will be fine my daughter.” But how could she be so sure?
“So, when do I leave for Lagos?” I asked.
“Hmmm, that’s another thing,” father said leaning forward. “You see, Millicent is going back tomorrow because she is a very busy woman and has to go back to work. So you’ll have to go with her when she’s leaving.”
“What? You mean tomorrow? You mean after tonight I’m leaving?” I asked looking at them in shock. They both nodded sheepishly. And that was when it hit me, they knew all along. They had been planning this even before Mrs Udofia showed up. I felt something well up in me, it wasn’t anger, it wasn’t sadness or pain, it wasn’t betrayal either, and I still can’t find the word to describe how I felt. Or maybe it was everything all mixed together. I could feel that knot in my throat, but I willed myself not to cry, “No, not now.” I kept telling myself, but it was too late, my tear ducts have a mind of their own and the tears flowed freely. I held on to my mother and I cried like a child because at that moment, that was exactly how I felt, like a child, lost and helpless.
I wanted to be angry at them, to tell them it wasn’t fair. Why did it always have to be me? First, I dropped out of school; Akpan was still in school, now I was leaving home to go serve some rich woman who was too busy to cook her own food! I was hurt; this was not fair at all. Father came over to hug me and it felt really awkward not just because his hugs are very rare and far between but because mother was hugging me too. I silently prayed that my brother wouldn’t come in to see the ridiculousness of it all.
“Please, don’t cry my daughter. You know I’m sad when you cry.” Father whispered.
“Then don’t send me away to be this woman’s slave,” I said through my tears.
“You are not anyone’s slave and you’ll never be, so get that out of your head. This is just a temporary arrangement.”
After a few minutes of placating me, I finally stopped crying and I kept repeating to myself, “It’s just a temporary arrangement” or at least that’s what father said…
Photo credit: http://morguefile.com