Timothy would have taken care of the curtains while she focused on his fast-growing children and their palavers.
Ify was her father’s daughter through-and-through. Beautiful as he had been handsome, and impatient, the growing girl was yet to learn that impatience was not part of womanhood. But Chioma would teach her – if Ify pulled her eyes away from the TV screen long enough to learn.
Dozie. He was less trouble alone, compared to his sisters. But put him in a room with either of the girls and a refractory Dozie emerged. With Ify it was fierce antagonism like wildcats over what channel to watch or who used the toilet without flushing. They would bicker until they were separated. Chioma did not fret about the relations between her older children; sibling rivalry was normal and they should outgrow it in time. She hoped.
Dozie with Mimi. That was more interesting. Since her birth, Dozie had nurtured a soft spot for his younger sister, running around the house with the energetic brat and even giving her her baths when Ify wasn’t forthcoming there. If he’d been home earlier, Mimi wouldn’t have been unwashed by this time. Chioma appreciated her son’s doting on his little sister. If only he wasn’t lazy about his own baths and never forgot to do the dishes in his turn.
Mimi. Chioma smiled. That girl reminded her of Lucozade Boost – either because she pranced around like she had guzzled a gallon of the drink, or because she was energetic as the drink. Whichever it was, Mimi and Lucozade Boost went together in Chioma’s head…And Chioma was thankful for her tiny joy.
She sighed softly and sleep soon claimed her.
She dreamt of Timothy asking what she wanted for dinner. She smiled and said roast meat. He laughed and started to make the fire. They were in their backyard. Presently, the huge chunk of meat – she didn’t know from what animal – was being spit-roasted while she watched intently. The smell of animal flesh in fire was nice, and her mouth watered. She inhaled again, wanting to fill her senses with the heady aroma. Her nose twitched. The smell was acrid now. The meat was burning! Timothy? She hadn’t noticed when he left her alone with the meat. And she didn’t know how to get the thing off the fire to save her life. Oh, dear. Timothy!…Timothy!…
Her eyes snapped open with a gasp; she was suddenly aware that she had cried his name out loud. She glanced sharply around her. There was no Timothy, no fire, no meat. But there was the smell.
It was realer and acrider than in the dream. She frowned. What –? Then her eyes widened in horror. “Oh my God!” She shot out of bed. “I-feooo-maaa!” She trotted to the parlour, where Ify was sprawled on the settee, this time watching Nkiru Sylvanus crying her onion-sized eyes out while singing some dirge over a grave. “Ify!”
Ify hopped off the settee at the sound of her name as if an ant had stung her buttocks. Her own expression mirrored Chioma’s horrified one and she looked like she was about to cry. She knew. She knew what she had done.
Chioma was trembling and her teeth were pressed together. She spoke through them. “You mean you sat down here watching movies and allowed my meat of two thousand naira to burn?” Anger and disbelief lethally rushed up and down inside her. Looking down at her daughter now, she wanted to beat her to a coma.
“Mummy…” Now she really seemed on the verge of tears.
Mimi chose the moment to wail from somewhere in the house.
Ify ran from the parlour to see what was wrong. Anything to escape from her mother’s fiery presence. Presently she returned to the parlour bearing Mimi. Mummy would hardly slap her with Mimi in her arms, Ify reasoned. And hoped. However she would keep a good distance between them lest the slap flew anyway. This was fury like never before. Meanwhile, Mimi was bawling uncontrollably, shielding her eyes with her arm. “She touched one of our chicks, and its mother pecked her leg,” Ify explained, quickly reflecting on how the mother hen’s anger was identical to her mother’s now.
Chioma ignored the both of them, and swept out of the parlour, tight-lipped. She couldn’t speak one word more for all the blood pounding angrily in her eyes.
As she passed by the children’s bedroom to hers, she wrinkled her nose. Dozie had done exactly what Ify had warned against – dozed off without even as much as a bath and change of clothes. Logically, the sink would still be crammed with the dirty dishes. Chioma ground her teeth to keep from crying out. She entered her room and banged the door shut, drowning Ify’s whimper of “Mummy…”
Her eyes misted.
She flopped on her bed and shut her eyes so tight the inside of her ears began to ache. They were goats, all three of them, terrors, ingrates, nightmares. She willed her senses to lose themselves in that blissful nap she had so rudely been jerked out of by…oh, Lord! Timothy. She was thinking of him again. He should have been with her now, beating some sense into that slovenly son of his! What was Dozie turning into? Surely “boys will always be boys” had not changed to “boys will always be pigs”?
Chioma sighed, and turned on her side. She was still very angry and her exhaustion had increased. She felt like crying as Mimi and Ify were doing in the parlour, but she couldn’t muster enough strength to. The little strength she had she used to ease her body further into the bed…
Timothy was not roasting bush meat anymore. In fact he did not seem to have any recollection of roasting meat earlier as he smoothed her hair in his lap, talking to her. She couldn’t make out the exact words, but they made her feel reassured, soothed her.
Then they were there, all three of them, sitting around their father and her. How had they appeared here? Timothy beckoned for Mimi to come to him. He pinched Ify’s cheeks, ruffled her braids. Ify giggled. He slapped Dozie’s palm the way he would a friend’s. Mimi was bobbing uncontrollably against Timothy’s side, squealing happily…
Chioma was startled out of her second nap for the afternoon by Ify’s voice coming from her bedroom doorway. “What is it?” she snapped feeling the dregs of her anger still in her.
Ify swallowed. “I – we – wanted to know what next to do.” Her beautiful face twitched uncertainly. “The meat is ready.” She breathed, relieved she had said it.
Chioma frowned. The meat was ready? What meat?
Ify did not give her mother the benefit of time to think before she said, “It’s in the kitchen,” and hurried out of the room.
Chioma’s frown deepened, but she tightened her wrapper around her waist anyway, and went after her daughter to the kitchen. Passing through the parlour, she noticed Mimi sleeping on a settee, wearing a clean yolk-yellow T-shirt and white shorts, and smelling of Dettol soap and Pears.
In the kitchen, Ify’s head was bent over a pot breathing out the aromatic steam of boiled meat.
Chioma was beginning to think she might have only dreamt of her meat burning after all.
Ify closed the pot, and fixed her mother a piteous stare. “We’re sorry, mummy…” Her eyes were glistening.
Chioma was confused. By now she understood a little. Ify was making restitution for the meat she neglectfully burnt; she’d given Mimi her bath; thankfully, the television was off in the daytime for the first time in as long as Chioma could remember; and Dozie, who had just walked into the kitchen, was looking more like a properly bred boy than a roadside mechanic. By the way, the sink was clear of a dirty spoon.
But Chioma did not understand it all. How had the burnt meat been replaced? And since when did Ify start thinking in “we” terms? Ify would readily exonerate herself from blame – preferring to slide it over to Dozie or Mimi or even her mother. But it was different now. She was saying she was sorry – for herself and her siblings. Chioma sighed gratefully, tears stinging her eyes. Her daughter was becoming a woman. Look at her there, so young yet so strong, so heady yet so sensitive. “Come.” She opened her arms, beckoning.
Ify ran into her mother’s arms, hugged her mother tight and sobbed. As if on cue, Mimi appeared at Chioma’s feet, tugging at her wrapper. Chioma pulled the girl up, balanced her against her hip. She looked over Mimi’s shoulder at Dozie who had been quietly watching the scene, his face a mask of indecision. To join or not to join. Men don’t do this kind of thing. Chioma smiled encouragingly at her son. That was all he needed to enter his mother’s arms, snuggled against his sister. The wildcats were not fighting this time, each intent on drawing all the warmth and love their mother had to give.
Chioma knew she would give anything for this moment to last forever. For these children to be always in her life; for them to share and care and love; for Mimi to be forever sweet; for Ify to be the ideal woman; and for Dozie to be a sterling man. She would…
A week later, while clearing the cobwebs in the children’s room, Chioma, on impulse, checked the old shoe in which they kept their savings – monies they got from visitors and relatives – and found out that the black polythene contained a thousand naira note and another fifty naira note. Chioma knew there had been three thousand and fifty naira last time she checked. Then it dawned on her. The meat mystery. She crumpled the bag in her hand, touched. She heard Dozie laugh and Ify echo the sound. They were in the parlour – all three of them – watching Speak Out on the NTA. No one was fighting to watch Emeka Ike cry over Genevieve Nnaji, or Man-U play Barca. Even Mimi wasn’t whining for her Beauty and the Beast cartoon to be played – for now. Chioma wanted to go in there and press them to her breasts. She had been doing that a lot more lately.
Five minutes later, she transferred something from her own purse to the polythene bag, and as she stuffed it back in the old shoe, she knelt and said a prayer of blessing from her heart for all her children.