Papa was buried at the back of our house. His burial lasted four days. Four days of people I had never met before, trooping in and out, crying, saying ndo, eating, drinking, complaining about finished meat. I did not understand how people had the appetite to eat at burials. How could one mourn on a full stomach? Mattresses and mats were all people who had full stomachs could think about, that, and Fanta. The woman from Mama’s shed, who collected Cabin Biscuits twice on the day Papa died, came to the burial and did not let me breathe because she wanted Fanta. I brought her Coke, then Sprite, but she rejected them — she only wanted Fanta. I saw one bottle of Fanta left in the store, but I opened it and poured the yellow liquid down the toilet. She complained until she went home.
Mama said I would go to Enugu when we finished mourning Papa. A person in mourning should not be traveling up and down, she said. The couple in Enugu sent us money, gifts and a sympathy card. Mama said that the handwriting on the card looked like the spots on our sandy compound where hens dug and scrambled for food. Nne, you will teach them how to write when you get there, she said. Mama did not lose her sense of humour, even in grief. But she lost many other things. She stopped waking up early, and she rarely went to her shed. She never cried after Papa’s death, but in her sleep, she sobbed and cursed Papa for going away.
In less than three months, Mama had lost so much weight she could no longer move. When she was taken to the hospital, the doctor said she had a stroke. At the hospital, Mama no longer cursed Papa in her sleep, she begged him instead. Come and take me, biazia kpolum, she repeated. I watched Mama, and the stubborn tears that were nowhere when Papa died suddenly could not be contained. I begged Papa, in my heart, to leave Mama for me.
Don’t listen to Mama, listen to me instead. Listen to your eyes, I pleaded.
The couple that sent us money came to visit Mama at the hospital. I didn’t know who sent for them, or how they knew what hospital we were at. But they came, and the woman hugged me for too long. I looked at them and I wondered which of them had written on the sympathy card.
They spoke to the doctor, who asked us to go home and rest. He said Mama’s blood pressure had normalised and that she was stable. I wanted to stay, but the doctor insisted we went home.
The couple drove me home, and the woman asked if I was okay with spending the night on my own. She said I could stay with them in a hotel in town, but I refused. I wanted to stay at home, so I could take Mama’s clothes to her. She forgot her favourite headscarf at home, too. If Mama came to and found that her hair was exposed, she would kill me.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I felt like Papa would listen to Mama if I shut my eyes, so I stayed awake. The shadows cast on our walls by the trees outside looked like giants. I could see their arms and fingers, even their eyes. They moved and I could feel them closing in on me, then I shut my eyes and saw Papa. He had a wheelbarrow filled with puff-puff and when I reached out to take one, he ran away, laughing. I sat there crying, and Papa began to hit his wheelbarrow with a stick. The sound it produced got louder with every hit until I woke up. There was a knock on the door.
The couple came to the house for me. The ride to the hospital was silent. The woman stretched her left hand to the back where I sat and offered me some peppermint. I took it and thanked her.
At the hospital, we were asked to wait a while at the reception. I sat in the wooden chair and I saw Mama in my mind’s eye, sitting on an upside-down mortar at the backyard, telling me how Papa came to her parent’s hut to beg her. How she liked Papa from the first day she met him, and how she liked seeing him beg. She pretended not to be interested in him for nearly one year. Mama and I went close to the kitchen and lay on the mat, and I curled up next to her. The smell of Mama’s hot water and tangerine cough mixture filled me up and burned my eyes.
When the woman touched me and said that Mama had gone to heaven, I coughed. I sipped the water they brought me and I told her that Mama did not go to heaven. Papa took her away.
The following days were filled with silence. Mama was buried beside Papa, and the woman helped me pack all of Mama’s clothes into her trunk. When there was nothing else to do in the house, loss came and wore me like a cloak. I saw Mama everywhere. She was in the kitchen and in the bedroom. She held my hand when I nearly tripped in the bathroom, and when the woman told me it was time to move to Enugu, Mama touched my hair lightly.
My mama says it is wrong for a person in mourning to travel up and down, I said to her. She looked at me as if I were glass that would break if she did not look with care. I could see myself in the water that formed in her eyes, and when she reached out and touched my hair, I knew that Mama was in her.
Nne, no one should grieve alone. Come, let us go, she said. It began to rain and I knew that Papa did not approve of the trip. Or maybe he did because when the woman held my hand and walked to the car, her hand felt familiar.
The morning I started secondary school in Enugu, my oga drove me to school. My classmates laughed every time I told them I was a house girl. Even I laughed at myself sometimes. House helps were outcasts who didn’t deserve anything good, especially an education. They cleaned and lived in the kitchen, and ate leftovers. The woman who lived on the street before ours beat up her house help because she caught her in bed with her husband. She said that the seventeen-year-old girl seduced her husband. She sent the girl back to her village afterwards and brought a different house girl from a different village. My madam said that if we lived in a civilized country, she would have had the man arrested for rape and his wife for battery.
My madam was different from all the madams I had heard about. The moment I walked into her home that morning, many years ago, I felt like a member of the family. She looked at me a little too much, like she was studying me, and when I caught her, she would look away. She said I could do whatever I wanted, as long as I did not disrespect her or her husband. They both worked late every day and had no children. I did not see why they needed help because there was almost nothing to do. When I did their dishes, she would come to the kitchen and rinse them in the second sink. Her husband did the cooking, and my madam and I helped him with little things like salt or pepper. I took my food upstairs to my room to eat the first day, but my madam warned me about eating anywhere else that wasn’t the dining table.
House helps were outcasts who didn’t deserve anything good, especially an education. They cleaned and lived in the kitchen, and ate leftovers.
My madam even asked me to call her Ndudi, but I could not. She said she did not appreciate anyone calling her madam. I tried, but it was too heavy for my mouth. I would open my mouth, but the name would refuse to come out. My mama would slap my mouth with the back of her hand if she heard me call someone who was reasonably older by their name, let alone my madam. I explained to her why I couldn’t call her Ndudi and she laughed at me. Ngwa, call me aunty Ndudi, she said. Call your oga Uncle Edozie. I told her I would try and she agreed.
When I turned sixteen, just after I finished secondary school, my madam came to my room and gave me a phone. An iPhone. She said she was proud of my performance at school. Then she asked me what I wanted to study at the university and I told her that I had always had an interest in Psychology. She held my hand and I felt Mama. Psychology is perfect, she said.
My Oga came home that day with a huge Psychology Encyclopaedia, and, when he handed it to me, I saw Mama and Papa standing in the hallway, thanking them and clapping their hands.
I read the encyclopaedia every day, except the morning I left for the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where I would be studying for the next four years. I would also live in the school accommodation because, although the University was in Enugu, it was far away from home.
Leaving home for school reminded me of leaving Onitsha for Enugu. My madam dropped me off at the park and continued to ask if I was sure I didn’t want her to take me all the way. It would be fun, she said. I didn’t want it. My madam was everywhere I turned and my body had begun to itch when she was around me. She wanted to know how and what I was doing, where I was going, who I was with. She nearly slapped me the day a boy from church walked me home. She had raised her hand, left it in the air for about five seconds, and then slowly brought it down. She held me by my wrist and dragged me into the house.
Look, pregnancy is not a thing you play with. These boys will get you pregnant and walk away! You will be shamed for it because you’ll carry the evidence around and no one will know his name, she screamed. It was confusing for me, and the liking I felt for my madam began to diminish. I felt slightly terrified, but boldly so. I held back many times from screaming in her face when she asked questions about my life. But I would remember Mama, and I would swallow many times.
So when she wanted to take me to school, I refused, quietly but firmly. And when she hugged me at the park, my nose was forced into her armpit and I could smell her Nivea deodorant. I tried to break away, but she held me there. You have been an amazing help, Ekwutosi, I hope you never forget where you come from, she said.
I arrived at the University and could still smell Nivea deodorant. I briefly wondered why my madam liked to use the masculine ones, and not the feminine ones. I also wondered why deodorants were classified according to gender — did sweat know whether one was male or female?