Nnedinma Jane Kalu is a Nigerian whose heart is set on telling the stories of people who can’t. She was a participant in the 2014 Writivism Workshop Programme and an Alumni of the 2014 Farafina Creative Writing workshop. She is a scriptwriter and has seen some of her work into production. She lives in Enugu from where she sees the world in the pages of books.
Father became a portrait hanging on a long nail in our dark sitting room that smelt of sadness. He hung there alone, away from Mum, my brother and me, on the other side of the room. He blended into the white background like he wore paint. His eyes were brown and glazed and narrowed in a squint. I did not remember Father; I was too small when he left. The portrait was the only picture of him we had, so I drew him when Mum was not home and my brother was outside. I drew him in my drawing book until my sketches began to look like him. I hid these sheets at the bottom of my clothes drawer and stared at them at night.
One day, during Maths class, Mrs. Emafido ranted so much about shapes that it made me think about the shapes on Father’s face. I bent over my open textbook, turned to the last page and drew him, accentuating his eyes to a sphere, his nose to a triangle, his ears to a circle and the other parts a combination of these shapes. His smile in my drawing was similar to the picture in our sitting room, the left corner of his mouth turned up and his cheek bulged out with a smooth roundness like there was a soft ball pushing at the wall of his mouth.
Mrs Emafido called my name and asked for an example of a circle. I stared in response and my amused partner stood up and said, ‘button’.
I bent over my book and a tear slipped from my eye.
“It’s ok darling,” Mrs Emafido said and she smiled.
That evening, when my brother was helping with my homework, he saw Father in my textbook. He gave me a glare and marched off, holding the book with only two of his fingers as though it was dirty. I followed him, my footsteps growing smaller and smaller as he entered Mum’s room.
“Look what she did,” he said, and threw the book on the bed. I stood in the doorway, my heart racing in my chest.
Mum zipped up her yellow dress and checked the time on her gold watch; then she picked up the book and looked at Father. With a blank look on her face, she pulled out a belt and struck my back before I could run out of the door. She grabbed my arm and held me in place as she swung the belt again. I screamed and threw my legs in the air. She let go of me and I landed on my buttocks.
My sight was blurry from tears as I watched my brother quietly leave the room. Mum held out the book and hissed, ‘don’t draw again. You hear me?’ She threw Father on the floor beside me and walked to the mirror.
I wiped my tears and watched Mum roll a pink lipstick over her mouth. She dusted brown powder on her face and it became brighter than the rest of her body. She smiled at the mirror and turned from side to side and picked up her purse. She walked over, pulled me off the floor and into an embrace. I started to sob, my tears soaking into the waistline of her dress.
She held me away from her yellow dress. “Don’t cry, my pretty girl …” she said and wiped the tears off my face.
I was not pretty. I was dark and short for my age. My brother took after Mum and was fair and tall and beautiful. People looked at my brother before looking at me and said he could be mistaken for a girl. No, I was not pretty, and Mum knew it.
She pecked my cheek and muttered that she was late for work. “Did your brother help with your homework?” she asked, and I nodded.
When she reached the front door, she called out to my brother to lock the doors.
Aunty Caro was not fair like Mum; she was dark and fat and always out of breath. She heaved into the chair with the torn upholstery and explained that Mum was heartbroken. Mum was sad and must be left alone.
“Don’t ask her questions about your father,” she said, waving her forefinger in my face. She leaned back, sighed heavily and told me how Father had suddenly disappeared , his clothes and chessboard gone with him.
I imagined Father slogging out the front door in the thick of the night with his duffel hung across his shoulder. “Did he leave at night or in the morning … or in the afternoon?” I asked.
Aunty Caro chuckled and said it was beside the point.
“Why did he leave?” I asked, ignoring my brother who had walked in and sat beside me.
Aunty Caro shrugged. “Because he’s a man.”
My brother stared thoughtfully at Aunty Caro. “I won’t leave,” he said, finally.
Aunty Caro chuckled again.
“Let’s wait till you’re a man then,” she said.
Aunty Caro pointed at Father’s portrait and said she blamed Mum for walking away from good times to marry that coward. Aunty Caro would rather sit in her high chair and puff cigarettes than give her heart to any man.
“Did Mum smoke too?” I asked.
“Oh Lord no! Your mother was the good one … the pretty one too. All the men wanted her.”
My brother grinned and Aunty Caro laughed till she began to cough.
“Look at the time. I can’t wait for your mother … tell her I was here,” she said, as she struggled to stand.
As Aunty Caro waddled to the door, I thought of Mum’s slender body in her sleeveless yellow dress and bright face and I wondered what good was.
Mum came home late at night and I jumped into her bed, asking if my brother would leave when he became a man. She looked at me strangely and asked where I’d heard that. I told her of Aunty Caro’s visit. Her jawline set in a frown as she picked up the phone and sent me to bed.
I stood outside her door and peeped through the keyhole. I could only see her suitcases stacked on top of each other against the cream wall. I put my ear to the door and heard her shout, ‘Caro, Caro, stop putting nonsense ideas in my children’s head. Leave them alone!’
In April, the weather in Enugu grew hot and Mum allowed me to play outside. I sat in the white sand left from patching-up our soakaway and watched my brother and his friends playing football. When the boys talked too loudly, my brother would place a finger across his lips and say ‘shhhhh’ like a distorted radio sound because Mum was sleeping inside.
Soon, an argument broke out over a score between my brother and the new boy from Lagos.
“You dey mad.” Lagos boy said.
“You’re a fool.” My brother said.
“Your Father there!” Lagos boy said.
My brother bent his knees and laughed. “Who cares? My father is a coward.”
The boys laughed and Lagos boy walked home with his head bowed.
That evening after Mum tucked me into bed, she went over to my brother and brushed her hand over his forehead. “Your father was not a coward …” she whispered. “Ignore Caro and her stories.”
I held my breath and waited for more, but then the light clicked, the door closed and my heart sank. I sat up in my bed and gazed into the blackness. Was, she had said, as though he had died and not disappeared.
“What does coward mean?” I asked my brother. He replied with silence.
We were dressed for school, sitting outside and waiting for the school bus to arrive. Mum emerged in her bathrobe, leaned on the front door, folded her hands across her chest and announced that there was a man who would come into our lives and make everything better. She wouldn’t even have to work anymore, she said. She asked my brother what he thought. My brother looked down at his toes and didn’t raise his head until the bus arrived and he ran out of the gate.
Some days later, the man arrived. We ate at the dining table and I watched his huge belly bounce as he chewed. His belly pressed so hard against the table I thought it would burst open at any minute. I glanced over at my brother who was gawking at the same feature and I kicked him under the table before Mum could notice.
After dinner the man sat me on his lap and we watched TV. The lights went off and Mum went to switch on the generator. He ran his hand over my thighs and whispered in my ear, “You’re a big girl.” When Mum came back inside, she sent us off to bed.
We lay facing the ceiling as though we were waiting for some- thing. Then we began to hear funny sounds from Mum’s room and my brother turned and looked at me.
“I think Mum likes Bellyman,” he said.
“She even let him sleep on her bed,” I said.
My brother appeared to be in thought.
“What do you think they’re doing?” I asked. He turned and faced the wall.
“Playing,” he said.
I swallowed the little saliva in my mouth.
“Will he become our father?” I asked.
My brother didn’t say anything or move, and I wondered how it only took him a second to fall asleep.
Bellyman visited on the weekends. When we heard his car horn, we stood outside the front door and smiled as he drove into the compound. Mum waited for him to squeeze his belly out of the car before she threw herself into his arms. He clasped our hands in a handshake and I winced from pain because Mum had scrubbed mine too hard in the bathroom.
“They have to look clean and presentable, look at your brother’s,” she’d say as she worked with the blue sponge. She would scrub and scrub and say that dark skin harboured a lot of dirt that nobody could see. “Look at your brother’s,” she’d say again.
Bellyman didn’t look at my hand when he shook it. We smiled and said, ‘Welcome Uncle, we missed you’.
He laughed and hugged us and smelt of the lavender talcum Mum dusted over our church clothes. After, we would shuffle off to our bedroom and spend most of our time there, until it was Monday and he waved us goodbye.
One Thursday, a day before Bellyman’s arrival, we returned from school and Father’s portrait was gone. The space on the wall where it used to be was whiter than the other parts around it. It was a perfect rectangle.
Bellyman took us to Nike Lake and bought us ice-cream cones, much to my brother’s chagrin. My brother refused and announced that he was no longer a child, but no one paid him attention. Bellyman lifted me into his arms and carried me as we walked around the lake.
My brother and I flung rocks into the water and poked at the floating seaweed with long sticks. When we were tired, we lay on the grass and listened to Bellyman make Mum laugh. There was a ring to this laughter that left me with a dreadful feeling.
Mum started to call Bellyman “Daddy”. “Go give this to Daddy,” she would say, or she would clap her hands and exclaim, “Daddy is coming this weekend!”
Soon after, she told us there would be a wedding. I thought of Aunty Caro, about what she said about Mum giving her heart to a man. Mum asked us what we thought about this wedding. My brother ran off, I said nothing and Mum just shook her head and left for the market.
I was on my bed, floating between sleep and wakefulness, when I felt Bellyman’s breath. It was not the weekend and he was not supposed to be here.
“Baby,” he whispered and ran his hands up and down my thighs.
He took off my pants and I kicked but he was big and strong. He covered my mouth and tried to force something from his body between my legs. He tried and tried and then he got up.
“You ugly thing,” he spat and staggered out of the room.
I could not move. Later, my brother came in and fell into his bed. He buried his face in a Super Striker magazine and didn’t see the tears on my cheeks. Mum came back from the market and was excited that Bellyman was home. She popped her head around the door and told us to make tea when we were hungry. She didn’t see the tears on my cheeks.
When it was quiet, I rolled off the bed and turned up the lantern. I tried to sketch Father but his face eluded me. I tore pages upon pages of my book but I could no longer remember Father’s face.
At school I had trouble sitting and Mrs Emafido noticed. She asked what was wrong and I began to cry.
She took me to the canteen and asked questions and questions and more questions and then I told her about Bellyman. She sent me back to class and then disappeared. I was very afraid.
That evening, Mrs Emafido and the Head Mistress came to our house and I knew I should not have said anything. Bellyman was not home but Mum was in the sitting room. I called my brother and we hid in the passage, listening to the murmurs until Mum started to shout gibberish. Only three words stood out … “insult … privacy … accusation.” We heard Head Mistress and Mrs Emafido leave and we ran to our room, jumped into our beds and drew the blankets over our heads.
“What did you do? What did you tell your teacher?” my brother asked, his voice muffled under the blanket.
“Nothing,” I lied.
Mum barged in and pulled me out of bed. I screamed before the belt tore at my flesh. Somebody shouted, I think it was my brother. Mum lashed madly. She yelled, gashed at my skin and cried. I left my body and watched the pain from a distance. I heard someone cry; I heard the voice call my name. I was lifted off the ground, my body convulsing, my joints threat- ening to fall apart. I tried to hold onto something but grasped at nothing.
I lay on Mum’s bed for a long time. Spirits visited when the night was at its darkest and hovered above me. They whispered my name and pulled me deep into a well. I fell and fell, and then I heard Mum’s tearful prayers and felt her hand over mine. In the morning she broke tablets in water and made me drink the bitterness that was the colour of my pain.
When I finally opened my eyes, I saw Mum forcing Bellyman’s clothes into a suitcase. She carried it out of the room and the sleeve of a shirt dangled from it and swept the floor as she went.
I walked over to the window and watched her throw the suitcase at Bellyman. He leaned on his car and two buttons of his shirt were open over his belly. He stared at his clothes as though they were not his.
“I should never have brought you to my home,” Mum shouted and kicked at the clothes. “You’re a coward,” Mum cried, “foolish man!”
Bellyman picked up his clothes and threw them in the backseat of his car. He didn’t see a green shirt that had gotten under the car while Mum kicked. He called Mum a mad woman as he drove off.
Later, my brother and I sat on the white sand outside our bedroom window and stared at the green shirt lying in the middle of our compound.
“Not all leaving is bad,” my brother said.
“Yours will be bad,” I said.
My brother was silent and I wished he would say,I wont go away.
“Will Mum put back Father’s portrait now?” I asked. “Father will never come back,” he said.
“Men are cowards,” I said.
“ Cowards,” my brother said.
I began to cry and he reached for my hand.
Mum was sorting my drawers while I was lying on my bed with my legs in the air. She pulled out my shirts and found my sketches of Father at the bottom of the drawer. I jumped down from the bed when I saw her with the sheets and got ready for the belt but Mum just sat on the floor and wept. My brother ran inside and stood beside me and we watched her cry. Then Mum stopped and pulled me towards her. “You’ve got talent.” She began to cry again and took me in her arms. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ll take care of you now. I’m so sorry.” She looked at my face and touched it.
“My pretty girl,” she said and I smiled.
While my brother wrote his entrance exams for secondary school, I changed schools. Mum was still angry with Mrs Emafido and the Headmistress for insulting her. In my new school, I was placed in Form 3, Mrs. Okoro’s class. She was nothing like Mrs. Emafido. She did not smile when she introduced me to my new class. Faces my age looked at me, some uninterested, some curious as she showed me to my seat.
Mrs Okoro walked over to the white board and wrote with a red marker. Social Studies. Beneath it she wrote, Family Unit.
She turned to the class. “A family is made up of Father, Mother and children, she said.
I thought of the perfect white rectangle in our sitting room where father’s portrait used to be with my mum, my brother and me on the other side of the room.
“The Father provides for the family while the Mother … ”
I turned to the back of my textbook and outlined my mother’s head.