Ẹni tí ò mọ bí ẹgbẹ́ rẹ̀ ṣe là, á sá àsákú.
Whoever unduly bothers about his peers’ successes, will hustle himself to death.
“So, Momo, how was school today?” My mother asked to fill the silence that had enveloped the car in a cold shadow. I didn’t really want to talk about anything that happened in school, not about the principal or Miss Agnes or the small cut that I had gotten from an afterschool football injury (that last one would set her off for days).
But I guess there was one thing I could tell her….
“Well, we had a new teacher today, a man,” I chipped in. “He was strange but funny in a cool way but I don’t know, his eyes…” I trailed off, trying to find the best words to describe them with. It was odd that even me, who was normally so good with words, suddenly couldn’t find my old friends to help me.
My mother’s hands tightened on the steering wheel, her voice raising just a bit. “Oh,” was all she said before she was quiet for a while.
“What did he say his name was?” She asked, her voice tight.
“Mr Anisan but he said we should call him ‘Ani’,” I replied, wondering briefly why she was acting so strange but she didn’t budge or say anything more after I answered. She just nodded her head and continued driving, humming along to Fela’s Opposite People playing in the car as she drove.
What was meant to be a short drive was stretched impossibly by traffic I was sure was caused by something small and not worth all the stress. I hated staying still or waiting, my nerves always threatened to jump out of my skin. I had to move a part of my body or it felt like I would go insane and so I just drummed my right fingers against the window, at least allowing a part of my body move as fast I wanted it to.
It was while we were in traffic that my mother suddenly froze, her eyes widening. “Dammit!” She shouted, hitting the steering wheel and accidentally honking her horn.
“I forgot to pack the cake from the bakery.” She said, facepalming herself and then proceeding to make a U-turn, ignoring the angry horns she was getting.
“Cake?” I asked, my eyebrows raised, practically leaping off the front seat. “Oh my God, is it Nani’s birthday?”
“Oh, no, of course not,” she said, shaking her head, manoeuvring the car with expert precision and speed. “That’s all the way in July. It’s, uh…” She was saying and then she looked at me, blushing.
I slipped back into the seat. “Oh, its your anniversary!” I exclaimed, hitting my forehead with my palm.
“Ugh, how did I forget?” I said, feeling a little bad. These were the two most important people in the world to me and I didn’t even remember their anniversary.
“You seem to have a lot on your mind nowadays, sweetie.” She stretched her arm to the side, giving me an awkward hug as she drove with one hand.
“You know you can always talk to me about anything, right?”
“Yes, mummy, I know.” I answered but I knew that there were things I couldn’t tell her, things I never even told myself.
But that was my mother, kind without a fault. She would give anything to make me happy, anything.
It took us about forty-five minutes to get to Ikoyi and the trip while a nice one gave me way too much time to think, my mind was a jumbled mess. I had another one of those headaches again and I gritted my teeth in pain as I cradled it softly in my right hand without my mother noticing.
With every one that passed, they got stronger and harsher, taking me a while longer to recover. Something told me to tell my mother but I held back. It would just make her worry, and things were already hard, I didn’t want to add my own wahala into it.
The bakery was a bright pink and yellow building situated between an equally if not brighter nursery school and a morbid looking Zenith bank so it looked like the never ceasing cheerful middle sibling.
Mummy parked and whipped the key out of the ignition, leaving like the car was one fire. She had reached the front gate when she remembered she forgot something.
“Momo,” she said, peering from the driver’s seat window when she walked back. “Do you want to—” She was saying and then her voice trailed off as she squinted her eyes, peering at me. “Mọ́remi, are you okay?” She asked, the concern bleeding into her voice.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” I mumbled, quickly turning my face to the side to remove my seatbelt. “I’ll come with you.” I got out of the car and dusted imaginary lint of my uniform and walked to the front gate with her.
She gave me one last look that translated as Are you sure you’re okay? I smiled in response, hoping it was enough. Whether she was about to push it or not, I don’t know, but we were greeted by the security guard, a cheerful old man, who smiled and beckoned us in. Of course, the smile wasn’t for me but my mother or “Mama Puff,” what he knew her by and besides that, I’m fairly sure the last time I saw him, I was five and I may have bitten him. Or so my mother tells me.
As we walked to the bakery doors, I whispered to my mother. “Do you think he remembers?” I asked.
My mother gave me a look. “You bit his leg, Mọ́remi.”
“Yes,” I threw my hands up in exasperation. “But why?”
She just shook her head. “You were a strange child.” She turned to me and cupped my face in her hand. “You are a strange child.”
Then as if remembering she had a cake to get, she quickly entered through the front door, a sign on it saying, Eat with us and you’ll never eat with anyone again.
I paused for a while touching my right temple and then followed my mum through the bakery door. The inside of the bakery was a small thing with colourful chairs and table arranged all over. Bright paintings that seemed to speak were hung on the red striped walls. The counter they sold food in was at the corner of the room with the pastries and treats shone on display through a curved glass. The back room was through a hallway that my mother stormed into leaving me in the main room itself.
I sat on one of the chairs and cradled my head as I laid it on the table, it was already closing time and there were no customers around. I was like that for about two minutes, contemplating the possibility of a nap when I heard the swoosh of the back-room door. I whipped my head up but it wasn’t my mum, it was two men.
One of them was moderately large and bald with a goatee while the other was on the big side but almost skinny compared to his friend. I recognised the man, faintly though, he was one of the men who worked alongside my mother and another woman in the bakery. They were laughing, jostling as the came out and then the big man handed the other a piece of paper, saying something quietly.
I don’t know why but something struck me as odd about the whole exchange. The big one went to the back and the other went towards the door, stopping at my table to tie his laces. He put the piece of paper on my table and as I looked at it closely, I realised it was a check but something didn’t add up….
‘Why is yours bigger than my mother’s?” I said and the man looked up from tying his shoelaces with a confused expression. He had weird eyebrows.
“Your pay check, that’s what it is, isn’t it?” I asked, pointing at the paper, standing up. “Why is it bigger than my mother’s?”
“Wait,” he said, standing up, taking a step back. “You’re Bisi’s daughter?”
“Yes,” I answered, my tone dark.
“The one that bit Mr Nwachukwu about eleven years ago?” The fear in his voice was as clear as the sign on the door.
“Yes,” I said, “but that’s not the point.” I added, pointing again to the cheque. “Why is your pay higher than my mum’s? She’s been working here longer than you and does more work.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say more—” He was saying before he saw my balled fists.
“Okay, Mọ́remi, it’s time to go.” I heard my mother saying as she came out from the door with the wide box in both her hands, her eyes widening as she saw the confrontation.
I snatched the cheque from the table and took it to my mother showing her. “Look.” I said and she gingerly took the paper, her eyes narrowing on the paper. “Edward,” she said, looking at him.
Edward had suddenly developed an avid interest in his shoes.
“This is almost twice as much as my pay.” My mother said and I could hear the pain scraping against her throat. “It’s been a decade and a half…”
“I swear,” he mumbled, his weak eyes looking at my mother as his strange eyebrows bumbled. “I didn’t know that I was—”
“Bullshit!” she shouted. She had a rule for Nani and I about swearing but I decided that it would have been a wrong time to bring it up. “I had talked to you all those mornings about it and you even dared to sympathise.”
My mother had scrunched up the cheque in her hands having dropped the cake on a nearby table.
At the sound of all the commotion, the big man I had seen earlier talking to Edward came out from behind the door adjusting his glasses. “Ahn ahn, what’s going on here?”
Edward looked at him the way a rat caught in a trap might look at one of his free brethren but my mother took two deep breaths and turned around, slowly untying her apron.
She allowed it drop on the floor and threw the cheque at the man’s face.
“I’m quitting.” She said simply and she picked up Nani’s cake from the table and walked out. “Mọ́remi, let’s go.”
As we left, I gave them the finger and turned around, following Mummy. I heard the man whisper as we left.
“Edward, what the hell happened? And is that the girl that bit the gateman years ago?”
That night, my mother was different, perhaps colder or angrier or a strange mix of both. But she shielded it all from me, though I could see it in her eyes. The tears of fury and pain that willed to be spilled. She had loved that job and treated every person there like family so it felt a lot like betrayal. It was.
The anniversary cake she had made stayed on the table, alone and isolated, uneaten all through the night as she dragged herself to her room to sleep. Alone.
Nani had left while we were gone.
For what felt, eerily, like the last time.
I woke up early the next day, showering like the wind, getting ready and heading off to the kitchen while Mummy was asleep. Mummy was the only one in the house who actually liked to cook while Nani and I normally sat on the side-lines, watching and tasting as she went. “We’re just trying to make sure it tastes okay, now let’s try the chicken.”
Mummy always joked that I better marry a man that can cook or at least boil water, in which case he’d be miles ahead of me.
Yet, I still knew my way around the pots, pans and ingredients to put together an omelette with some toast. Yeah, the shape and colour were a bit off but I think I got the general idea across.
I knocked on her door with my foot, tray in hand. I was surprised the racket I made while cooking didn’t wake her up, she normally slept light. I think that the day before had drained her in every way possible. And Nani leaving again didn’t make it better. The cake was still on the table. I had opened it while cooking, just to have a peek and it was dark red with a line from a book (I think?) written on it with white icing.
For you, a thousand times over.
“Mọ́remi!” she said groggily as I jumped on the bed, careful not to spill the food. “What’s all this?” she said, sitting up and looking at the food.
“I made breakfast for you.” I smiled.
She sighed and put her head in her hands and then lifted it up. “What do you want?”
“Nothing!” I said, shocked and putting on a hurt face. “Can’t I make breakfast for my favourite—”
At her eyebrow raise, I gave it up.
“Okay, please, please, please, can I go for soccer practice at school?” I asked, my hands clasped together.
“Momo, today I have to start looking for another job and Nani is—” she stopped herself, taking a deep breath. “So, I can’t take you or be in time to pick you up.”
“I can walk there, it’s only like ten minutes away.” I said, urging her to eat.
She sighed again, “Okay.” She said. “But please, be careful. And don’t talk to strangers, and don’t go anywhere else. Straight there and straight there back, you hear?” she said pointing a finger.
I quickly nodded my head. “Yes, yes, thank you so much!” Hugging her, barely able to contain my excitement.
As I left the room, I heard her shout. “Mọ́remi, these eggs taste horrible!”
I knew the ketchup would be a bad decision.
Soccer practice, like it always did, passed by like a blur, the rhythms of the ball and my feet making me feel like I was part of the field. Of course, my mum allowing me play made it less stressful than me having to sneak out all the time.
Outshining the boys also made it better.
I would cross and dribble them to extinction and I was easily the best one on the team. I had scored my ninth goal that day as sunset started to loom above all our heads and I knew it was time to go.
I was still in my football jersey, a Man Utd one Nani had gotten me herself (without mummy knowing). I normally would have changed in the girl’s changing room, like I always did, alone, since I was the only girl on the team, but I didn’t want to waste time so I picked up my bag after we were done, waving to the coach.
I ignored the glares from the boys, I always got those, every single time.
I left the school gates and walked down the streets, by then, it was already a little dark, just a little past six and I prayed to any god out there that my mother wasn’t home yet.
I decided to pass a shortcut, a small alleyway that cut directly beside my house, it was in this alley way I heard footsteps from right behind me.
I whipped my head around and saw a large man approaching, his face was masked with only his eyes visible. I remember those eyes, they looked hungry, they were craving.
I turned to run but he was already too close, dragging my hair back and hitting me against the stone walls of the alley. He dragged my shirt but I growled and bit his harm and he screamed but didn’t let go of my hair so I jumped, using my head as a weapon to hit his nose, hearing the sickening crunch as my head broke the bone.
He stumbled behind, his large weight slowing him down as he fell but I wasn’t done, something inside me began to burn as I jumped on, hurtling my fists on his face, grunting as they came back with blood.
I wanted him hurt.
I wanted him dead.
I kept on launching fist after fist into his face, the black mask he wore soaked with his blood. I didn’t remove the mask, I didn’t want to see him as human, just an enemy. One I needed to get rid of.
He kept on muttering a word, but I couldn’t hear him and I dragged him by his collarbones, screaming in his face. “What! What are you saying, you bastard?”
“P—Please,” was all he said, all he kept saying, uttering the word like a prayer. But there was no god there, no deity, just me.
The tears flowed out like a broken dam as I suddenly began to choke the sobs, realising what I had done. I ran and ran, back to my home. I didn’t know how much time had passed, how long I ran for.
All I remember was her shocked face, my mother’s, as I burst through the door, my face plastered with tears. I remember how warm she was, how tightly she hugged me.
So tight, that I couldn’t see her tears.