Going to that market today had been a day’s job, Chioma thought wearily, dragging herself and her load of two full Bagco bags into the kitchen. “Ify!” she called, gratefully dropping the bags on the long table she covered with old newspapers to protect the wood from soot. A casual glance over her shoulder brought her to notice that the sink was piled with dirty plates, bowls, and cutlery.
She made for the parlour.
It was empty. The TV was on and the image of a laughing Genevieve Nnaji was frozen on the screen.
Chioma ground her molars. Ify. Time had come to lock away that VCD player. “Ify!” Her irritation was rising. How come none of them was around to welcome her? She checked her watch. Three-fifty p.m. Dozie would be playing football now with his friends. Ify may be in the toilet or something, that was why the movie was paused. And Mimi… Mimi would be hidden somewhere, up to one silly activity or the other that had caught her fancy. Her youngest child was a case. At five, the little girl was as nosy as a rat in a garri store, always everywhere in the house, snooping, touching, prising, moving, prodding, peering, tearing, scraping and peeling. She was never in one place for too long and her tiny hands were never kept to herself. What puzzled Chioma was the way the child managed to do these things quietly, her footfalls light on the floor as her short, fat legs plodded along. Until she got into trouble. Then they would all hear her wail, drawing the attention of her mother and seniors to save her.
“Mimi?” she called.
Chioma loosened her scarf, tied it round her small waist, and made back for the kitchen.
Chioma paused at the kitchen door. A girl – not five-year-old Mimi but an older one – stood at the kitchen table, eyeing her warily. “Oh, Ify. Where are your brother and sister?”
Ify flicked stray braids off her face before answering. At fourteen she was beautiful and very aware of it. With her straight nose, eyelashes in distinct strands and smooth fair skin, she was set to turn heads from now until years to come. Chioma’s gaze inadvertently wandered to the jutting mounds stretching the front of Ify’s pink sleeveless turtle-neck shirt. She will be heavy-bosomed… Yanking her eyes from her daughter’s young chest, she silently prayed the girl would not let her stunning looks get into her head to get her into anything stupid. I’ll kill you then!
“Dozie went to play ball,” Ifeoma was saying. “And Mimi…” Her voice faltered. She shut her mouth and shrugged.
Chioma said under her breath, “I thought as much.” Whoever knew where Mimi was or what she was doing? Meanwhile… “Ify?…” Chioma waved her hand over the irksome sink, glaring at her daughter.
“Mummy, it’s Dozie oh!” Ify replied sharply, her face instantly becoming a rain cloud. “It’s his turn to wash the plates, yet he went out to play ball.” She grumbled like thunder under her breath.
Chioma had a good mind to make her do the dishes – as Ify feared – puckered face or not. Was she not a girl after all? Dozie was a man; did Ify have to make a fuss about him doing housework? Chioma, she chided herself immediately, this is the twenty-first century! Sighing resignedly, she joined Ify in unpacking her merchandise.
They heard a rustle.
Chioma cocked her head, listening for the sound. It came from behind the kitchen door which opened inwards to rest against the ill-used gas cooker. In the triangular space formed by the joining of the door edge and cooker body, yams were stored. What could be making that noise there? A rat, maybe, Chioma concluded. Until they heard a sneeze from the same place. Rat indeed.
Ify shook her head and rolled her eyes, pouring some locks onto her face.
Chioma went to the door, pulled as if to shut it, and stared down at Mimi bent over yam tubers, looking so busy. “Mimi, what are you doing here?”
The girl inclined her head backwards and upwards to give her mother that liquid, gleeful smile only a five-year-old can give. Her eyes were small and of a deep brown like Chioma’s. She looked every inch the sweet child that could giggle with little prodding. By way of an answer, Mimi raised her hitherto concealed hands. They were closed around green stem-like things.
“They looked like the green beans you use for salad, Mummy,” Mimi explained in her childish drawl. “Are they green beans, Mummy?”
“Okay, okay, darling” – Chioma made a paddling movement with her hands, ignoring the child’s question about the yam tendrils – “you can come out now. Didn’t you hear me calling all this time, huh?”
Mimi scrambled to her little feet, still clutching the tendrils in her fat little fists. The blue chequered dress she wore had extra custom designs: green juice from her precious tendrils, brown from dirt, and yellow from the yam-and-palm-oil breakfast Chioma had prepared for them before leaving for the market.
Ify looked up from pulling two hunks of stock fish from one of the bags.
“Why hasn’t Mimi had her bath all day?”
Ify instantly wore the face of a martyr. “But, Mummy, I…”
“Yes?” Chioma cut in, hands folded across her breasts, eyebrows raised at her daughter, daring her to come up with a plausible story different from the one Chioma knew only too well. “She squirmed when you tried to get her into the tub, and instead took you on a race round the house. Is that it?” Chioma inclined her body forward. “Have you taken a good look at yourself in the mirror, Ifeoma? This is how you will become a woman, e kwa, by watching movies all day and forgetting to bathe a child?”
Ify did not answer. She merely pouted and stuffed the stock fish into the iron basket hanging above the cooker where they kept smoked fish and spices. Just then, a boy bounced into the kitchen, balancing a muddy, half-deflated football against his side with the crook of his arm. He was lanky, and at the threshold of puberty, wearing a Chelsea jersey and shorts, with a well worn pair of previously-white boots covering his feet. Sweat poured down his body and he reeked of staleness. He grinned at Mimi who giggled back. On noticing him, Ify’s expression changed instantly to that a rat might wear at a cat’s execution. “Ehen, Mummy, see Dozie!” she reported triumphantly, her eyeballs rapidly dancing up and down in his direction.
“What did Dozie do?” the boy asked in a smooth voice that hadn’t yet broken. His close-set eyes hovered between Ify and Chioma, finally resting on Ify. He glowered at his sister, ready to give back whatever nonsense she had to give.
“The plates, anu!” Ify bit out. “Who did you leave them for?”
Dozie ground his teeth, drew his glare from Ify to their mother. “Mummy!” he barked. “You can see Ify insulting me now! Better warn her oh!”
“Please, come and wash the plates, and stop standing there like a moron. And make sure you don’t enter our room stinking like that!” She rolled her eyes up and down at him and kissed her teeth.
Blood boiled in Dozie’s chest; he shook a thrust-out finger at her, struggled to say something, his gritted teeth and impaired vocal cords not letting him.
“Anu ohia, come and wash the plates!” Ify sang, enjoying his ire. His stutter always left her at an advantage.
“Now that’s enough, you two!” Chioma’s voice stepped in. “Dozie, you know what to do. But go freshen up first, and don’t leave my kitchen a mess and go to play football next time.”
Dozie threw one last, long glare at his gloating sister, and stomped out of the kitchen. One of these days he was going to slap redness into her yellow face.
Chioma turned back to Ify, instructed her to finish up the unpacking, boil water for Mimi’s bath, put another pot on the fire to boil the meat she bought, get the ugba out of the freezer to thaw, and make sure Mimi had a bath in thirty minutes. The meat should be boiled on the bigger Butterfly stove; it was faster. But the heat should be low or the meat would burn. She was going to shower and take a nap. Ify should wake her up when the meat was done.
Ify grumbled bitterly, but Chioma pressed her eyelids shut and looked away. Grumbling was one of the inalienable rights of the child; why deny her it?
Showered and in her room, Chioma sank her weight into the bed that was bigger than she alone could occupy. She’d toured round the market today, looking for a matching curtain colour to go with the new mauve rug she bought for the parlour last week. Either that what she was looking for was not in the market or her taste was too peculiar. Whichever it was, the search had kept her longer than she’d wished in the market and fizzed out all her energy as well.
It was at moments like this she wished she didn’t have to occupy this big bed alone since three years ago when Timothy was electrocuted by a high-tension wire that snapped and fell on him as he waded his way through a bad night storm.
Chioma shivered at the memory. The sight of his darkened, dried-up face the next morning – after her sleepless night – had made her vomit all over two-year-old Mimi she was carrying…
Every other thing had happened in a flash: the shaving of her hair, the dug earth, the sympathies, and the white mourning blouse and wrapper she’d worn to every place for one year…