Mama loves Papa. It is the only rational thing – short of God designed – that can substantiate their relationship and the way she treats him. Their love is one that challenges emotional boundaries and leaves Mama praying in tongues in the dead of the night because Papa would not come back early – though the car is hers, and cursing fervently at everything; the broom, the TV and mostly, us. It leaves her in a constant state of agitation and filled with phrases like Ekwensu Nwoke, Anu ofia and variety of others. It also makes her unhappy, and to begin to recount to us historical clichés that were more irritating than taking the fall for Papa, right after they fought and she felt deeply depressed about the outcome. She would talk about Mama Nnukwu and her; the nonchalant attitude towards them and how she chose a different path because she didn’t want her children to suffer. She would tell us of the numerous stresses she had undergone for the family and the sacrifices she had to make until it all started feeling monotonous; indistinct and gradually stroke a new cord of normalcy that over the years, we have become well accustomed to.
Her love was mingled with pity, attention seeking and an even greater need to be praised, but she had the misfortune of marrying Papa on those terms because he had none of those perquisites and is – as far as I am concerned – not making any effort.
It would make her continue, despite our protests, to give him money and go as far as paying all the bills and even our school fees. It would overpower her whenever she was around him and make her hurl curses at him left, front and centre and I would watch him react with matched velocity as though her sacrifices were her wifely duties. The only time papa ever said thank you I recall, was last three years when she made him chicken pepper soup as a bribe to attend mass and he quickly said thank you and then right after eating, refused to go.
Papa was an insufferable self-centered man who seemed to think that by merely birthing us he was entitled to everything, our lives too – if that were possible. He would order everyone around whenever he was around and then become grumpy when parental requests were made of him.
“I should have had one week notice”, he would complain when Chinwendu demanded for money with which to purchase textbooks and other times – that were most times – he would quickly reply that he had no money. Papa naturally felt no pressure, he understood that Mama would consciously put us up to asking him though she already knew or suspected he had no money and then she would do it herself. It was hard for me not to picture Papa as the spoilt brat we were warned of becoming, with the vivid image of boys and girls so overfed with the satisfaction of needs that they had permanently lost the will and the how of doing anything for themselves. I would watch in utter disgust as he would frown and throw a tantrum whenever he demanded Mama to “loan” him some money and she naturally would refuse at first instance. I would shake my head and wonder what type of man Junior would become under these circumstances. Inwardly I thanked God I wasn’t going to be one to deal with them in their old age, they were a handful and Junior was the man.
Growing up, I wasn’t taught that a woman’s place was the kitchen and that the fees of the children and the cost of living of the family was the man’s responsibility. I was taught the reverse with my realities. Papa, as long as I can remember had no manly shame when he defaulted in these things but when I think of it, Mama contributed a great deal too. Papa was not used to doing things for the family, he would go out – on the rare days he received rent from the dilapidated yard his father left him – to the market and purchase Okra, catfish and other things he alone desired and then on coming home he would enter the kitchen and cook. I had always disliked the soup – not that he cared – as well as everyone else. He never asked what we would eat or whether we had eaten. He presumed, as always, Mama would take care of it.
When our house got burnt was when the misery of Papa’s non- proactiveness besieged us all. We were moving from home to home of different family friends before we finally retired to Achara Layout, where Mama Nnukwu and her offspring were already over – populating a three room apartment. When we moved to New Heaven again not quite long after, inwardly I started blaming Ada for putting us in trouble; she was after all the one who went to Mama’s wardrobe with the candle, a secret I and all my siblings would carry to the grave.
Their love thickened to a firm climax when Mama developed high blood pressure, Papa had loved her so hard, it hurt. And whenever they were engaged in their early morning routine shouting she would clutch her chest and say my heart. It had become her defence against Papa’s merciless tongue and her excuse for not doing exercise like we and Papa had suggested. Every day now, she would say that Papa wanted to kill her but then just after we have had an advisory session in which, I, her other six daughters and junior would again make a futile attempt to stop her from always springing attacks on Papa who we had now seen was too lost in self-appraisal to pay any attention to anyone, she would start at the slightest chance she got. She was depreciating fast in a quick – paced dance with age, there was nothing we could do about. But, personally, I blamed stress.
When we finally settled into our own home, it was unceremonious and to an uncompleted building that Mama insisted was better than exchanging words with aunt Ify, over the underwear Chiwendu insisted was hers. Soon, the house absorbed us as much as we did it and there was no offensiveness about the many half-used bags of cement that littered everywhere and the toilet that coughed up what was given after it was flushed. Not long after, the vestiges of normalcy that plagued our old life came to stay, as though invited. And in its character was the black and white television – I could have sworn belonged to my grandfather – Papa’s late night habit, and the Nitel Job mama had.
Before the Nitel Job, Mama told us stories of when Papa was the Udi Deputy local government chairman, how we lived in Independence layout and entertained big men with expensive wine; how papa had thought spending a more natural thing than saving and investing and how we were reduced into abject poverty after Papa’s tenure abruptly expired, with political enemies fast on his heels. Then, we had relocated to Ebonyi briefly.
It was Nitel that saved us. Mama had worked tirelessly, having seen something worthwhile to occupy her time besides Papa, though she made time every evening to fight with him, it was the strong influence of their love in action. And so, with much difficulty, each fee and bill that came and kept coming were paid and we pushed on. Papa still never once appreciated Mama over all these – for then he was jobless – for he felt it was her responsibility since she was the one earning something. Soon, Nitel too closed down under the weight of Obasanjo’s regime and we were back to square one again. Papa by then had tried to run for Udi local government chairman again, presumably with the little fund Mama had put aside for emergencies, he lost. Not long after, Papa was given an appointment as the secretary to the local government and Mama got a Job as a part-time lecturer in Enugu State College of Education and Technology (ESCET). Nnedi and Obioma had by then gotten admission to Ebonyi state university to study Medical Rehabilitation, Mama from nowhere paid the 300, 000 thousand that was their school fees and sent them off, Papa said nothing.
When the love climax was again raised to a crescendo was when the Mercedes Jeep was bought. Papa had been driving the Toyota Camry all the while and now, he came for the keys to the jeep. Mama had virtually trekked for as long as I can remember – even when she was the manager at Nitel and now she was going to be denied. We saw this as an affront and we sided with her for the first time in their love battle and came out victorious. Only for us to figure out later that he would demand for the car for a special occasion – which was becoming everyday – and she would give it to him and then complain to us that he was always taking the car. So, when the Sienna was bought, when she complained and they fought again, we said nothing and even when the Mercedes was stolen and he came for the Sienna, again we said nothing. The only car he ever owned was a 504 Peugeot which he was given by the local government when he was still the deputy chairman. The old Peugeot seemed to revel in family unionism; for every morning, everyone with the exception of Mama was demanded to push – start the Peugeot before it unrelentingly cackled to life under the influence of motion and sweat. Then it would spurt black fumes at those who aided it to life; an ungrateful thing.
It worried me that Mama never got tired of talking about Papa, as though he were the most interesting topic in the world. She was too dependent, and on a love that I now believe was fueled by a deep desire for finances and an even more intricate need for what Papa called ‘me time’. Though he really meant night club time or in the alternative a new cable connection where live matches were shown and a brand new flat screen Tv. These he listed as conditions to stay home – to think that Mama would even consider it. Only for us to come home later to find that she had met the said conditions only that Papa said light was a fundamental term since the others were useless without it, and since Mama had no control over power outage, he reverted to his old ways.
Their love, like a victory-drunk monster attacked us again. Sometime after Nkiru got pregnant for one agboro boy in our street and Mama was not herself again. After the thorough beating Nkiru received, one I, Junior and Jacinta furiously tried to prevail on, all to no avail, Mama and Papa fought the next day over who would drive the car. But it wasn’t the normal one their love was used to, the one in which Ekwensu Nwoke and Anu Ofia were thrown aggressively by Mama with Papa’s now trite retort – useless woman. It was different. They spat and clawed and tore and exchanged real blows. By the time we separated them, Mama was unconscious and Papa’s face looked like he had being attacked by wild, fierce clawed cats. At the spots where Mama’s Koi Koi had made impact with his bald head were streams of scarlet and it ran across his head, through his eyes and down to his cheeks. It seemed, when he blinked as though they were scarlet tears. In the evening, Uncle Chuks came with a bottle of wine to broker the peace, along with Chitis bread for us. When he left the bottle of wine lay untouched and Mama packed her bags silently, no words were spoken that evening.
The Next morning Papa asked junior to go and wash the car, Junior started. Mama had the keys and she had left for Achara – layout the evening before and it was unlikely the car would move. I watched him from the well, holding the water bag gently. He made to speak, I could tell that he wanted to remind Papa these facts, then he didn’t. It seemed he thought better of it. Then the next thing, Junior ran with Papa in hot pursuit hoisting a big stick. I was later told he had said something about a man that couldn’t buy a car.
The love seemed still, for two weeks we didn’t see Mama. On the third day of the third week, I returned from school and saw Mama bustling about in the kitchen. I greeted her and went outside. There I saw Papa’s laundry everywhere. I took a tentative step towards the toilet she had built for him, I opened it. Unbelievable! It was clean. When Papa returned in the evening, he left not quite long after with the car after Junior rewashed it. The next day when I woke around 5:00 am, I heard Papa and Mama expressing their love. I smiled, although inwardly I felt he would never speak the things she would want him say, of feelings tremendous in his soul, yearning, aching, of trivial nonsensities assuming sudden importance at thoughts of her, of knowing, a chanced possibility that everything would fall into place, of loving, every nerve stretched taut over tense and warm flesh, turgid members plowing pliable mines that cried rivers of scarlet tears, of hope and of love; an eternity of kindness reciprocated with as much delicate gesture as received. Stretching, Edging… progressively towards the steep of inhibition’s cliff, almost acting and yet not acting.
Uche Osita James is a final year law student at the University of Nigeria. He is also the current president of the Nwokike Literary Club . And under his administration, a fifth literary journal titled ” Surugede” was published in the name of the club.His works have been published in Gleamglean.com,Scriggler.com,Pulseng.com,The Kalahari Review,Nigerianwritershub.com,Africanwriters.com,Okadabooks and several other writing platforms. He is a free lance writer and is currently working on his first novel.