We see life through the eyes of a prostitute’s daughter as her world takes a turn for the worse in one night.
My mother’s voice drew me out of the world of Spongebob. Reluctantly, I unglued my eyes from the colourful screen of the TV set and turned to face her.
She was sitting on a stool in front of her ‘make-up area’, her long hair—weave-on, actually—combined with her fair skin and bright make-up making her look just like I imagined a mermaid would.
“Koko, am expecting a visitor,” Mummy said. She got up and dabbed her strong-smelling perfume on almost every part of her body. She was wearing a short, bright red dress (red is her favourite colour) that was so tight I feared she would burst right out of it if she moved too much. Mummy is tall and big, but not fat like Mama Bisi next door; she’s just okay. “You know the usual thing, dear, go and play at Mama Bisi’s place till am through.”
Mother had visitors every night, sometimes as many as three in one night; always male. She didn’t like me to be around whenever these visitors came calling, so I usually went to Mama Bisi’s place to play. But as much as I loved playing with Mama Bisi’s children, I wanted to continue watching Spongebob, and there was no DSTV at Mama Bisi’s.
Mother saw the frown on my face and misread it. “Are you hungry? Don’t worry I’ll buy shawarma and barbecue for you when am through.”
I at once brightened up; those two were my favouritest foods in the world.
“Okay, Mummy,” I piped and got to my feet. There was a knock at the door as I moved towards it. Mother’s visitor had arrived.
“Quick, go through the back door,” Mummy ordered and I obeyed. It made me feel bad that she never wanted her visitors to see me, though. Like she wasn’t proud of me and didn’t want people knowing I was her kid.
It was a chilly night and already very dark outside although it was just a few minutes past 7p.m. This was because PHCN had seized power supply in our area, and also because it would rain soon. Mummy had put on her generator, and that was why we had light in our room.
Mama Bisi’s place was, like ours, a single room. The place we lived in was one of those typical Lagos buildings people refer to as ‘face-me-I-face-you’, in which everyone shared the same toilet and bathroom, as well as kitchen. The toilet and bathroom were located at the back of the building while the kitchen was really just an opening surrounded by four stakes and covered with a canopy at the corner of the building.
A short, fat woman who sold akara outside every morning, Mama Bisi had a large family of eight, all living in that small room! Yet I envied Bisi and her siblings, I’d have loved to have many brothers and sisters to play with all the time too.
The door of Mama Bisi’s room was wide open, still I knocked.
“Who be that?” a woman’s deep voice questioned.
“It’s me, Kokomma,” I responded in my thin, girlish voice.
“Na you dey knock? Enter now.”
Despite being in the same building, Mama Bisi’s room was very different from ours. While our room was nicely furnished and always neatly arranged, this room was a jumbled-up, untidy mess. A large mattress took up the greater part of it and was packed with every item of clothing imaginable, while the rest of the space was competed for by all sorts of things: bench, stove, dirty dishes, slippers, worn-out shoes, buckets (some filled with water and some empty), coal pot…and so many other things. There was no television in the room but a transistor radio sat on the bench and was blaring out news in Yoruba. A lantern was beside the radio, the only source of light.
“Kokomummy,” Mama Bisi called me by my nickname. “Fine girl, siddon on top that bench.”
I beamed at her compliment. I always liked being called a fine girl and lots of people do call me that. That’s because I’m truly fine. I am my mother’s daughter and one cannot be the daughter of a woman as beautiful as a mermaid without being pretty herself. I was light-skinned like her, and hoped that when I grew up, I would be tall and curvy too. I had noticed the way people stared at Mummy’s body in her skimpy clothes and had come to realize that some things are even better than a pretty face.
Once seated, I squinted at the spot where Mama Bisi, her husband and their children were huddled on the ground, trying to see what had them so quiet. I soon saw that they were all busy eating. Mama Bisi and her husband had two bowls to themselves while the children, Bisi, Kayode, Seun, Princess, Segun and Tomi, were sitting round another pair of bowls. I couldn’t see what they were eating but it smelled tasty, making me suddenly hungry.
“Come and eat.” That was from Seun. Like me, he was ten years old and it was no secret that he was very fond of me; in fact, people often called him my husband. I had begun to avoid him, though, ever since the day he put his hand under my skirt when we were both alone in the room.
“No mind am o, Koko,” Mama Bisi hurriedly countered her son. “Just siddon there and enjoy yourself.”
I turned back round and shifted restlessly in my seat, wondering how it was possible to enjoy myself now that I was hungry. Although the shawarma and barbecued chicken Mummy had promised me was far better than whatever local meal Mama Bisi and her family were devouring right now, I kept staring longingly at the eating lot.
“Let her join the children, she looks hungry,” I heard Baba Bisi whisper to his wife in Yoruba. They both knew I could understand the language despite the fact that I couldn’t speak it, hence the need to whisper. What Baba Bisi hadn’t reckoned with was my sharp hearing.
“Why? Let her mother feed her now. Food that is not yet enough for my children,” I heard Mama Bisi reply in a whisper slightly louder than her husband’s.
“She’s just a kid now, and she looks hungry.”
With a hiss Mama Bisi called to me, “Koko, make you go play outside small. Your friends go come join you when they chop finish, sogbo.”
I didn’t want to go out in the cold and longed for a taste of the food her children were eating with smacking lips, but I nodded obediently and shambled out of the room. I threw a glance in the direction of our room as I went past, wishing Mummy would finish with her guest quickly. I needed that shawarma and barbecued chicken badly now.
It was even colder outside than before and the sleeveless top and three-quarter pants I had on, as cute as they looked on me, didn’t help matters. I moved towards the mango tree in front of the building where all the kids loved to play in the daytime, sure Bisi and her siblings would find me there when they were through with their food. I sat on the thick root of the tree and watched as the growing wind tossed about leaves, bits of paper and all sorts of rubbish in the air. The sky was very black and there was no moon or stars in sight. It started drizzling but not a drop of rain touched me under the tree.
“Rain is going to beat you.”
The words came from Cinderbell, my secret friend. I looked up into the tree to see her sitting on one of its branches, legs dangling over both sides. She was my age, pretty and very light-skinned (an oyinbo) and always wore a short glittery gown. Her hair was golden, though it was red sometimes, and behind her were a pair of silvery wings. I was the only one that could see her and that was because she wasn’t real; I made her up. She was the only person in the world whom I could tell anything – like the day I wished Kayode dead because he called my mother a harlot.
Cinderbell and I were similar in many ways. I had no father and she had no mother. She was raised by her wicked stepmother who made life unbearable for her till she ran off to marry a prince. Sometimes, she was a complete orphan who was raised by the fairies of the woods. So, she’s half-princess, half-fairy.
“I don’t care if the rain beats me,” I replied her, pouting. I was very sad and she knew it.
“Don’t pout at me. It’s not my fault you are out here; it’s your Mom’s.”
“Don’t talk about my mother like that.”
“She shouldn’t have made you go out of the room at this time and in this weather,” insisted Cinderbell.
“I want to pee,” I said loudly, changing the subject. Cinderbell didn’t like Mother, she was always quick to criticize her. If there was anything I didn’t like about Cinderbell, it was that.
I got up and walked to the shed-like structure that housed the toilet and bathroom, but stopped short at the thought of going into that dark place without any light.
“Better pee out here,” Cinderbell advised. “It’s dark so no one would see you.”
It was wrong to do that, I knew. Baba Landlord in particular frowned against people peeing anywhere apart from the toilet, but I heeded Cinderbell’s advice. I crouched beside the wall of the shed and did my business.
Done, I was pulling up my panties and leggings when I sensed someone watching me. I whirled round to see a man standing a few paces away. There was something frightening about the way he stood there, breathing heavily as he stared at me. The light rain had plastered my clothes to my body and I felt uncomfortable under his gaze. I couldn’t see him clearly but was certain he wasn’t anyone I knew.
“Come and take,” he said, digging one hand in his pocket and beckoning the other at me.
I took a step back in increasing panic only for him to come closer.
“Run!” Cinderbell shrieked at me, and I did. As fast as I could, I raced back towards the building, afraid the man would grab hold of me at any moment, even the rain couldn’t slow me down. I breezed past a group of gossiping teenagers who hardly noticed me and came short in front of our room, not sure Mummy had finished with her guest.
“Go in,” Cinderbell told me. “After all, this is not the first time you are doing it.”
She was right. I had snuck in on Mummy and her guests a few times before and it was Cinderbell that talked me into it as she was doing now. On those occasions, I stole in through the back door, and since the room was always dark at such times, it had been easy for me to hide and watch in wonder. I would strain my eyes and try to see as much of the shadowy figures as I could. Their up and down movements accompanied with strange groans left little to my young imagination. I knew what they were up to, of course; I knew this was that secret thing adult men and women did that led to the creation of babies. I’d seen it done clearly many times on TV. What I didn’t understand was why, despite the fact she was doing it so much, Mummy was yet to give me a brother or sister.
“Go on,” Cinderbell persisted.
I did as she said…I always did as Cinderbell said.
Opening the door as gently and soundlessly as I could manage, I snuck in.
I was surprised to find the room lit up this time around. It was not brightly lit, though, since it was only the bedside lamp that was on. I hid beside Mummy’s clothes hanger, trying to make myself as invisible as possible, then my eyes travelled to the bed. They were doing it as was to be expected, Mummy and her guest, but the strange thing was; they weren’t making any sounds and the bed wasn’t doing its usual up and down movement. The man was just crouched above Mummy, staring down at her.
I felt goosebumps rise all over my cold skin as I realized something was totally wrong. My eyes adapted more to the dim lighting and I saw the knife in the man’s hand… and the blood.
There was blood everywhere. On the man’s hand, on the knife, on the bed covers, on the polythene bag that sat on the bed and on… on Mother’s unmoving naked body!
The knife dropped from the man’s hand as he looked up in my direction. His chest was bare but he had his trousers on. The mangled mess that was my mother’s body was worse than anything I had ever come across, even in my most horrible nightmare. I screamed ceaselessly and ran out of the room.
The neighbours were on me almost as soon as I stepped out.
“He’s killing her, he’s killing Mummy,” I yelled like a crazy person. Then my legs gave out beneath me, and everything went black.
There were lots of people around me when I woke, all chattering in whispers. I blinked and looked around, hoping I was waking up from a terrible nightmare. I was in Mama Bisi’s room and many of the neighbours, mostly women, were with me.
“Mummmyyy,” I groaned. “Where is my Mummy?”
The women shook their heads sadly and looked at me with pitying looks in their eyes, but no one answered my question. I knew what they did not say: Mother was dead. That man had killed her. But why? Why had he done it?
“People wicked o,” Mama Bisi said. “That man na devilish person but I thank God say Koko catch am. Him too done collect him judgement abi? Nobody fit come do that kind thing for this we yard make him go scot-free.”
“But wetin go come happen to this poor pikin now? Ehn?” someone else asked.
That question was also unanswered; many of them just shook their heads and looked away. They all probably thought I was too young to understand their words, but I understood it all.
My mother was gone and I was all alone in the world.
That night I stopped being a child; that night I stopped seeing Cinderbell.