She came onto the stage in a cage. She wore a shiny blue raincoat, a jewel-encrusted bikini peeking out of it. Tall platform heels. Her curly red wig bounced as she skipped out of the cage and intimately into my life. We were not even properly introduced, yet her hands were everywhere. She grabbed her own radiant derriere — she handled it, offered it — like it was a facsimile of Cain’s scriptural offering to God. She squatted and spread her legs, settled a hand between them, where it stayed. Caressed her bosom. She masturbated a dancer with the help of a cane. She pretended to go down on the guitarist.
“Ewww!” Chisom’s disgusted voice piped up behind me, startling me around. “Brother Emeka, what are you watching?”
“Shhhhh!” I hissed, my eyes snapping angrily at my ten-year-old sibling. “It’s just a stage performance –”
“By who this time – Rihanna or Beyoncé?!” Chisom squinted at the television. At that time, the performing pop star dipped. Marched. Stalked. Jogged. Ground. And straddled one of her dancers. “Oh my goodness!” Chisom shrank back from the telly, as though a communicable disease was wafting from the screen, and turned an accusing glare on me. “Shebi mummy has told you to stop watching all these…these…people” – she waved an indignant hand at the television – “…she says they are godless people. But you will not hear.” There was such a look of righteous rectitude on her face that I felt like the rascally little child getting told off by a stern elderly person.
The role reversal was not lost on me, and I felt a quick spurt of anger course through me. Chisom was such a Miss Goody-Two-Shoes. Mummy’s baby girl. Daddy’s little pet. Pampered lastborn of the house, who was blessed with an aptitude for her class work (something that made our parents very happy), and an uncanny understanding that the more she portrayed herself as the faultless child, the shinier her apple will be in our parents’ collective eye. Such level of manipulation made her the most dangerous sibling in the world, I often thought.
“You won’t shut up your mouth and mind your own business,” I snarled with such venom that she recoiled from me. “If you dare tell mummy or daddy about this eh…eh…” I flailed helplessly in my mental lexicon for the right words that will string together the appropriate threat, then settled instead with snapping my fingers menacingly in her face. “You will see,” I finished lamely.
The shuffle of footsteps coming from the corridor was the presage that told of Mummy’s approaching presence. I dived for the remote control and quickly snapped off the television, plunging the pictures on the screen into a dark abyss that swallowed them up, leaving the screen blank-faced, a stoic chattel that will faithfully keep my transgression safely tucked away, until the button on the remote is flicked on again.
Mummy marched into the living room, rifling through her bag. She was a formidable figure, in spite of her soft matronly build and huge pendulous bosom that swayed as she walked. The no-nonsense look she usually wore on her face every morning before school runs was back on there, its rigid lines perfectly ironed out on the contours of her face. Ever since I could remember, I had never seen that look leave her face in the mornings of Monday all through to Friday. It was that expression that warned us – her children – that when we’d been woken for the day, we had better remain awake. Snuggling back in bed would not be tolerated. The same look promised all sorts of painful penalties if we didn’t gobble up breakfast, whether there was milk in the tea or not. I have two younger brothers – thirteen and eleven years old – and we were all a rambunctious lot; that look was what kept us from misbehaving in the car whilst she drove them to school. I am fifteen now, and fancied myself almost a man, yet that look kept me in line as surely as a cane would.
“My car keys…where are my car keys?…and that appointment book…ok, here it is…the envelopes for those invitations…where are those keys sef?…is there enough money in my purse?…the keys, the keys…” Her fingers dug inside her mammoth handbag as she mumbled off a litany of objects without which her day would not make sense. Then she looked up, and her eyebrows whipped close together, forming one long, severe line. “Ele ihe unu mega ebe a? Where are Kelechi and Tobenna?”
“They are outside in the car,” I replied in a muted tone.
“And why are you two in here instead of outside with them?” she snapped, her eyes darting from us to the inside of her bag, still searching for the car keys.
“Brother was watching Beyoncé and Rihanna in the television,” Chisom sang out with the temerity of King Henry Tudor pronouncing decapitation on yet another ill-fated wife.
I gasped. The little bitch.
Mummy’s head shot up, and Chisom shimmied a little dance to buttress her point. Mummy’s head oscillated slowly in my direction, her eyes now narrowed to slits. “You have been watching all those nonsense music even when I’ve warned you not to?”
I gulped hard, the silence that came in the wake of her question enhancing the sound of the saliva slurping down my throat. “Mummy…it’s not – it’s just…”
“How many times have I warned you, eh, Chukwuemeka?! But you won’t listen. You will spend your allowance on all these dirty music, buying CDs and not reading your books!” Her voice had turned strident with rage. “Instead of learning Christian songs, you’re busy warbling all that nonsense from…em…from…” She floundered, looking toward Chisom for help.
“Tuface,” the smug little girl supplied.
“Eheh! Tuface!” She swung her angry face back on me. “No matter how many times I talk, it feels as if the words enter one ear, and go out through the other.” At that juncture, she trudged toward me and latched one of the offending body parts between her fingers, pulling so hard that I winced at the sparks of pain that arced through my head. “You this foolish child! Since you won’t listen to me…chere ka nna gi lota!”
And there it was. The words that sent a cold chill slithering down my spine. Wait till your father comes back. Those words that fell with the staccato weight of a death sentencing. As much as Mummy’s demeanor instilled discipline in her children, Daddy’s cane did a whole lot more. Streamlined. Wiry. Supple. Whistling through the air with such a sylphlike grace one would never suspect the unimaginable pain one stroke against a culpable flesh can cause. The cane wielded such a reign of terror that it had become embodied with my father’s presence. Daddy worked as a marketing executive in Access Bank, and as such, got to travel a lot. Big man job. Stressful job. And so, when he returned from his trips, after having endured the condescension of customers, the last thing he wanted to come home to was unruly children. So the cane was kept handy to correct any misdemeanors. When Chisom threw a tantrum over her night bath, the cane went ‘thwack!’. When Tobenna squealed his protest at the vegetables in his dinner, the cane went ‘thwack-thwack!’. When Kelechi and I had a skirmish over the veracity of me getting two-siki at the throw of the dice during our game of ludo, the cane went on a thwack-y rampage. Thwack-THwack-THWACK!
And after shouldering the responsibility of raising four children, three of them boys, Mummy had devised the magic words that kept us in line. Chere ka nna gi lota.
Wait till your father comes back.
The words now echoed inside my head, sweeping out tendrils of terror throughout my system, causing my heart to pick up a beat that could have rivaled the rataplan of drums in a festival. I shot Chisom a look of pure loathing. She looked wary, a little uneasy, as though she feared that the fury of the cane might find its way to her for being a witness to my misdeed.