by Anthony Emecheta
‘Will you get up from there and go wash my car?’ dad thundered on entering my room. ‘This is how you idle away. Writing Rubbish.’
I was sitting on a chair tucked under my reading table beside the window with louvres opened to let in the orange rays of the sun and also recycle the damp air. My pen made marks on the sheet lying on the table. I was absorbed in my own story that I didn’t notice when dad entered. I convulsed at the sound of his voice, sprang to my feet and scurried away. It was vital not to hesitate when dad was in the bossy mood because his strike would come like flash, unannounced.
‘How many people still read?’ he added behind me. It filtered into my ears like a whisper.
I left the room with tears collecting in my eyes, making my lids itch and my vision blurry. The tears were from anger because I had a flowing story, yet to be written down – and important ideas are volatile, they vaporize if you don’t put them down very fast.
The last time something similar happened, it was mum that interrupted me for an errand. By the time I returned to my writing table, the story had disappeared from my brain; what remained were mutilated, disjointed versions I could hardly piece together. It probably would be the same experience when I was done bathing the car I imagined.
Nkem, my elder sister, shares in my sadness, unlike my two older brothers who are indifferent to my feelings. She must have heard dad yell. She approached my side and patted my shoulder, took a deep breath and in a calming confidence said,
‘Don’t let it bother you. Your writings are great.’
I wasn’t sure if she said those words to make me feel better or really meant them but it worked. Soon after she left, I dried my eyes. Washing the car which was supposed to be a death sentence turned exciting.
Rinsing became more pleasurable. I would squeeze the nozzle of the long hose pipe – which had its other end plugged into the mouth of the tap – forcing water to jet out. From time to time, I would deliberately spill water on a passer-by and enjoy their outburst. While I mouthed an apology, I laughed with my heart. Gradually, writing faded from my priorities, replaced by the thought of higher educations. That was when I was thirteen.
Our house was a long stretch of rectangular blocks partitioned into rooms. It lacked the privacy and enclosure provided by a fence. It worried me because the neighbourhood children (about my age) always see me whenever dad is chasing me around with a broom or one leg of his shoe, shouting and cursing. They will later use it to tease me.
After my graduation from the university, I began to think of writing as a serious business once more especially when the reality of remaining perpetually unemployed dawned on me. Subsequently, dad paid off the sales boys and inducted me into the shop. It was his way of helping the situation and he never failed to remind me that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.
I love it whenever dad tries to speak English because he would end up mutilating the words with his thick Igbo accent and some words wrongly pronounced that they would sound like something else.
As the new sales boy, I was meant to leave home for shop as early as before 6 am (it was called morning rush) and return somewhere beyond 10 pm when half of the city had retired to bed. This meant little time to write.
I decided I would at least write a page or two each time I got home in the night but each time I sat down to write, I was imprisoned behind the cold bars of slumber. My sleep was always deep and unrehearsed and I would wake up in the morning feeling terrible for yet another lost night.
For the first few months when I resumed duty (without pay, mind you), I would sit and murmur to myself when there were no customers to attend to. Soon, my unhappiness began to affect my relationship with our customers. I became the nagging retailer that customers dreaded, the kind of retailer that doesn’t believe in the maxim, ‘customer is always right’. Only a few customers were bold enough to report me to my dad.
After months of depression and self-imposed moodiness, it occurred to me I could make use of the small time pockets, when there were no customers to write. Dad’s mood changed when he discovered I hadn’t quit writing. Obviously, he didn’t want me to be a writer. I imagined him bragging to his friends that one of his sons was working in the bank.
‘Be at alert,’ dad would yell whenever he senses I am absorbed in writing, ‘How will you know when a burgler is trying something funny?’
My sister had taught me through her counsels to tolerate dad, no matter how hard he pushed me to the zone of anger. Her ultimate shield was to ignore his tantrums and never let it get to you. I quickly adopted her strategy.
I focused more on short stories and flash fictions because they required less time to pen down on paper. I would think the story through in my brain and hurriedly put them down whenever I could steal time.
At night, I would give the folded pieces of papers containing the first draft of stories to my sister to read and edit and point out flaws. She was always pleased to take the pieces of papers from me and promised to read them.
‘The stories are wonderful!’ and similar words were usually her reply when she handed back the papers.
One night, I came home and sought advice from her. I saw a short story contest earlier and wanted to enter and I needed her to tell me which of my stories stood a better chance of winning.
‘Ehm… ehm…’ she trailed off.
That was when it dawned on me that she may not have read any of the stories I gave her. I was heartbroken. Her reassuring words of how good a writer I was sounded like mockery. I could hear the words laughing at me from the shadows of my imagination.
Fast forward to five months later, I participated in the tunza eco-generation (tunza.eco-generation.org) seventh environmental essay contest.
I got a mail a month after the deadline that I was among the honourable mentions. I was shocked. To be sure it wasn’t a trick, I waited till my certificate and souvenir arrived. I showed dad my winnings and he nodded.
Truly, any job can put food on your table but only your talent can stand you out and if you hold on just long enough, you will get everyone else to accept your passion. Ever since, whenever dad sees me writing, he would nod and say, ‘Jisie ike,’ meaning, ‘keep it up.’
This entry was submitted as part of the Nigerian Voices competition organized by YNaija.com.
We publish, un-edited, Nigerians telling the stories of their everyday lives. Read all the narratives daily on the Nigerian Voices vertical. You can also contribute your own story titled ‘Nigerian Voices’ to [email protected].