They would come every year, arriving suddenly at our home with their chatter in a language I struggled to greet in. My late father’s two sisters came with gifts of oranges as if the fruits could absorb the jolt of their arrival and act as succour. They also came with their portable spittoons. Tins which had left Lagos for Makurdi, filled with the chocolate grains of Bournvita, now returned half filled with grains of sand which they spat into until the grains could hold no more. I could hear the sickening sound of spittle licking against the tin walls whilst they plodded around. After a few days, the familiar nauseating reek would fill our house and I would begin to resent their presence and their amazement at my continuous inability to speak tiv our language. Their presence permeated our three bedroom house making it seem much smaller than it was. My only escape was the clicking of my bedroom lock. But this year it would be different.
Mngeren. Water. Fele fele. Quickly. It came and left with Aunty Iveren; Aunty Mary told mum. They sat in the parlour, my mum still in her work clothes, Aunty Mary clothed in pain. There was no power and she perched on the edge of the brown sofa with a clutch of car park biblical pamphlets crumpled in her hand. As Aunty Mary spoke she straightened them flat on her laps and used them as a fan against the unrelenting heat. She would wring the papers again in both hands, the crunch of the papers accompanying her words. I sat cross-legged on the carpet, my uniform bunched up around me, my eyes swinging from my Stephen King novel to Aunty Mary whilst I tried to latch onto stray words from her stream of Tiv. The neck of her blouse was stretched past her jutting collarbones as if she had been tugging on it. Her tin was missing from beside her feet. I seemed to be looking at everything except Aunty Mary’s face and the empty space to her left.
“Jesus” the lone English word I could catch and a splatter of tears hit the pamphlets like raindrops on a zinc roof.
“Doo va hen” Aunty Mary said and I was forced to go to her. She held me close; my face fitting snugly into her neck. I breathed in the sweat, her cheap perfume and the faint scent of citrus. She had not forgotten the gifts as if we would turn her away without them.
The aunties had heard the repeated warnings about flooding. But where were they meant to go? Aunty Mary repeated this question until it sounded like a plea. They had thought it wouldn’t get to their little bungalow in North Bank. The day it arrived it was like any rainy day. A light drizzle remained from the fallout from the morning’s rain. The narrow road in front of their house had turned to a muddy slush of red, the wheels of the Okadas splattering mud on pedestrians as they raced past. The aunties were on their veranda listening to Radio Nigeria on their transistor radio. They watched idly as a family of four passed; the father, holding two makeshift suitcases of brightly coloured cloth in both hands. A little baby was asleep, tied to her mother’s back. The mother’s left hand held another one of the suitcases and the other dragged her little girl by her arm. They were walking quickly and the little girl’s feet were barely touching the ground. The family were soon followed by others. Some dragged small suitcases; others had stuffed clothes in shopping bags. The water was rising.
“Pack Mary!” Aunty Mary was the younger more meticulous one and she moved precisely, putting essentials in one small suitcase. Change of clothes and underwear, phones, money. Aunty Iveren had the green fingers and the stubbornness. She wanted to harvest some maize from the small plot of land they had. Mary had looked at her like she was crazy.
“What will we eat when we get back Mamie?” And Mary let her go. She had waited, checking, watching for the familiar rolling hips of her sister but seeing only unfamiliar faces. People were jostling now; the casual stroll had been replaced by tangible fear which filled Aunty Mary until she now watched nothing but the road. The river came, first as a little wave which nudged then shepherded dirty black polythene bags down the road; then a tide able to lift the signboard from the barbing salon up the road. The water had started swishing onto their veranda, wetting her slippers, when she decided that Iveren was not coming back this way. She stepped off the veranda and it was like she had dived feet first into a swimming pool. The cold briny water lapped at her waist and she quickly lost her slippers. She snatched their little suitcase above her head, holding it in both hands like a soldier holding his rifle up as he wades through a swamp. She crept along until the water only lapped at her ankles. Aunty Mary left her footprints on the hot asphalt as she emerged at the top of their church’s road. She made her way with other refugees with faces as empty as their hands to one of the makeshift camps cobbled together by the state government and stayed two weeks in Makurdi, moving from camp to camp, ignoring my mum’s calls to come to Lagos as she searched for the sister that she let go.
And now she sat on our veranda beside an empty chair where her sister used to be. She would watch the dark sky from her post not leaving until the rain eased and even then, would stay until every drop of water had been squeezed out. She would walk out of the house into the compound; disdain and grief etched on her face and would spit in the puddles.
“Aunty ,M pande ver.” My mangled greetings did not pull Aunty Mary’s lips sideways anymore. She didn’t wince when I answered my mother back in English, she barely spoke to us at all. The house did not reek but Aunty Mary’s sadness lay on it like a shroud. The three of us would sit down for dinner. Mum and I eating spaghetti, Aunty Mary rolling balls of Semo between her fingers. We would push the strands around with our forks as we pretended not to see Aunty Mary’s lips moving, speaking to someone with no words. I imagined she was telling Aunty Iveren how these city people were trying to make her eat worms. The clicking of my lock as I lay down to sleep could not keep her out; I still heard the stifled sounds from her room beside mine. This year it was different. I hadn’t realised how I had counted on them never changing. Familiar smells and sounds. Even the tin abominations.
My sandals made slapping noises on the kitchen tiles, a sound my mum hated but the house was quiet. The last flakes of powdered milk had been used this morning and I picked the blue Peak tin from where mum had thrown it. I walked to the neighbours’ house. They had a heap of grey construction sand piled up in front of their fence. My friends and I had conquered the little mountain many times, climbing to its peak and placing a small flag in the sand (if we were pretending it was Everest) or tossed a makeshift ring onto the top (if it was Mordor). I knelt at the bottom and put the tin beside me, pulling down on my dress until the fabric was between my knees and the painful little stones. I held the round tin cover in both hands and stabbed deep into the sand, dragging the grains towards me. The grains plinked at the bottom of the tin as I poured the sand in, the wind whipped some of the dirt back in my face making my mouth gritty. My little hands worked until the tin was half filled with precious sand. I carried my gift back to my Aunty Mary. She looked up at the squeaking of the gate, her eyes following me until I entered the house. She had turned towards the door of the veranda and I held the tin out to her.
“Go hor” Take. Ill mannered but she didn’t seem to notice. She moved forward in the plastic chair, the legs squealing against the concrete, until she was on the edge. Her hands felt like sand against mine as she took it from my hands. She used the tips of her fingers to open the tin; her nails bitten to the quick. Her face seemed to break, a glimpse of my fierce aunty peeping through the cracks.
“Thank you Doo” she said and my lips tugged at her mangling of the sounds.
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