“Today is the day you show me who is the real woman behind this man you are parading as your husband,” Aunty Helen shouted. She did it more for the benefit of those listening outside than because she was angry at Mama.
“Helen,” Mama said in a hoary, tired voice. “Calm down, when he comes he will give you whatever it is.”
Aunty Helen isn’t really violent, I think she just did it that day because Baba didn’t marry her. I have heard from some people that Mama stole him from Aunty Helen, that she was the one that was supposed to be our mother. I don’t think Mama stole anything; she has him more than we ever have. Everyone wonders if they had just been allowed to marry whether Baba would have had eyes for Mama like this. Well, she kept shouting and shouting until he came and carried her off. When he came, she just coiled up like a snake, whimpering and sniffing, and he went to her, knelt beside her and said things I don’t want to remember. He spoke like she was a favourite child that had been bullied for no reason.
Aunty Helen was right – she was the real woman, but Mama didn’t care.
That is when I knew. You, Mama, are the best of your kind – the noble, the honourable, the good. With you I know peace, with you I know calmness, with you I fear nothing and I am not wont to run away. That day she came and shook her fake, dancing tresses in your face, and laughed her calculating, seductive, alluring laughter but it did not move you – that day I knew you were the best of your kind. No one understands. No one sees that in my heart the tempest broils and broils and only you can blow the whistles that still these storms, only you can command my heart.
I remember those tiles and how you fought for them, how you insisted we should walk on cold, smooth, ceramic. Baba didn’t really want to spend the money, it was like a waste in his mind, but you stood your ground and said you would no longer sweep and mop cement when every other door you knocked upon opened up to colourful, heavenly tiled floors. I loved you so intensely for winning with him, and for choosing sparkly, white tiles. Sometimes it made me feel like I was in a jeweled paradise, lying on the bare floor and listening as little Sunny sang his error-ful rhymes:
Ring-o, ring-o roses!
My pocket full of Moses!
Sometimes he makes me love you again, for reasons entirely different than that you plait my hair every week and let me lick some of the palm kernel oil you gently ladled onto my parted scalp with your finger. I like the taste of it and I know I can have it whenever I want, but I like the way you dripped it in my little cupped hands every Friday night, like a secret the rest of the house didn’t know about. Also, it made me want to be big, to drive a car, to go somewhere with heels and dresses and come back with goody packs like Maman Baby when you say,
“Help your brother cross the road and then run to school. Don’t talk to strangers, y’hear?”
And it makes me love him, despite that he bites my fingers every morning I leave him at that nursery school. But I know he just does it for fun and I know he keeps that Tom-tom in his pocket for me, but prefers that I bully it off of him anyway. I never told you about that because you would ask him to stop. I really think it would help him grow up strong to beat other children and take their things. At least I don’t have to worry about leaving him alone with his age mates; he can well handle himself and teach whoever needs teaching a very good lesson.
Sometimes when Maman Baby would bring her by during school holidays when she went to work in the morning, I didn’t like greeting her. She came with her dark shoes and her multicoloured face and looked at you in a way that made me want to say something to her. But I don’t know what I would have said. I liked her shoes, how they raised her, how they gave her feet a most fascinating figure, how they shaped her calf and showed her bright red, unnatural toe nails. She was beautiful.
“Where is your mother always going to?” I asked Baby once.
“Mummy goes to work. Doesn’t your mummy work?” Baby answered.
“Mama works all the time. She never stays quiet,” I nodded a winning, happy retort.
You are always working. I liked those tiles but they did nothing to change the fact that you are busy all the time: plates, floors, clothes, sheets, stoves, cobwebs, windows, grass. You are always shining, polishing, cleaning, cooking, frying, baking or making something. So yes, do you work alright! It was that day I first got the idea that I should like to work and wear shoes and dresses and drive a car and drop Sunny off at his nursery school. It would be something bigger than holding his hand; at least then when he would bite my fingers, may be those sharp red nails would bruise his tongue.
Maman Baby and Baba worked in the same place. I don’t know how I first came to know this, but I noticed once how Baba always stooped a little to greet her, how when she dropped Baby she picked Baba, how he always added “ma” to everything he said to her. But I never once heard him say “ma” to you. He doesn’t even call your name. What is your name?
“Maman Sunny, we will be eating egusi this Sunday. The men are meeting here this week,” Baba would say. It is always Maman Sunny. Was I not born before him, your very first child? Baby is a first born too, I wonder if when she gets a brother her mother will stop being Maman Baby. Mama says Baby may never have a brother or sister, because her parents are happy having only her. I don’t really want to think about that. All her life she will have no one to fight with over the front seat, no one to give her Tom-Toms, no one to report her for pulling their ears… It could be nice, but I really like having my Sunny around.
With those tiles, you won for the first time with Baba. I watched how you tended to them like a garden, always wiping, always dusting. Aunty Helen never came to the house again but I know Baba still sees her, maybe he even says “ma” to her.