Synopsis: Living with an abusive father is unbearable and sometimes the only way to cope is to wish for his death. But as the character in this heartbreaking story finds, there are some injustices that death cannot undo.
I cannot remember how big the cupboard in our kitchen was but I can remember that when we were kids, we used to throw open the cupboard and hide in it. It was long time ago. There were other places we used to hide in when papa would start his raving shouts, pacing round the whole house, and destroying everything that stood his way.
Papa was a slim man, tall, and haggard looking. His head was bald, which made him look more of a politician than a lawyer. He had long fingers affixed to broad hands. He was educated and could speak good English more than so many lawyers that visited our house. There were times we thought he was going mad. When he came back late at nights and driving recklessly into the nights would enter the quarters and demand for his food.
His shouts were always so loud that other magistrates and judges living in their different flats knew what was happening in our house at all times. He would beat mother so much till we became scared. We would watch from afar till he scowled at us. It was when we lived at the Magistrate Quarters and papa was the youngest magistrate in Ebonyi State. We were very young, my sister, Nneoma and I.
Papa would beat you for failing exams. If you passed, he would say that other kids passed too and that you had the same brain with all of the other kids that passed.
He would beat mother for asking questions like—why he came back late? Where he had been all day? And who he was carrying in his car?
If we were running around the quarters with other kids, he would come back and chase them away. One day, we were playing, papa came back and met mother inside the sitting room doing her hair. It had just stopped raining and he had asked the kids playing with us to leave. He started shouting and mother shouted back as usual. We rushed into the house and watched.
He hit mother with his fists and she bit him and ransacked his long face with her nails. He kicked her belly hit her head on the wall. She fainted. When mother slumped, I swooped on papa, and grabbed the black suit he loved so much. My elder sister, Nneoma joined in the fight. He threw us off even before we could scratch.
That day, when mother returned from the clinic and had lost a baby and Aunty Bennie made jollof rice. He knelt down in the sitting room and apologized to all of us. That night, I had a dream, but when I awoke, I forgot all of it.
The next day, papa left very early and did not return till four days later when Aunty Bennie came to the house on a hot afternoon and mother sped off with her in her new Toyota car. We wondered what might be the problem. The question topmost my mind was if father had died. But Nneoma said perhaps he was with another woman.
We awaited their return till an hour later. Mother went to her room and began crying. She locked herself and ignored all our knocks. In the evening, she came out of her room and handed a black nylon to Nneoma. I watched her swollen eyes and her puffy red face. She said;
‘Biko, please, burn this rubbish. Ensure your hands do not touch the contents. They are dirty. Who knows if she baths at all?’ Nneoma took the nylon and went to the backyard. I followed hastily like a dog ready to pounce on an intruder. I was as tense as she was.
‘What’s in there?’ she asked. I shrugged. We walked further down the backyard where Pride of Barbados lined in queues. She slowly opened the nylon and the contents fell on the red soil. The contents surprised us a lot. It was like the first time both of us caught Samuel, our driver, in bed with Eunice, my daddy’s sister. The lingerie was white and the brazier was white too. They looked neat but we could not stop believing that they were dirty.
‘What is this?’ Nneoma asked. She was staring at me. Her large face that resembled mother’s own showed surprise. I shrugged.
‘Perhaps mother caught papa with a girl and took her underwear,’ I said. Breeze rushed out from the trees and wanted to capture us into its embrace. The leaves fell on our hairs and to the soil.
‘Let’s ask Aunty Bennie when she shows up,’ she said. I nodded. I walked into the kitchen and came back with a dirty gallon of kerosene and matches. We set the underwear ablaze. The smokes were in columns, moving up to the sky like the incense that emanates from the censer during holy mass. Birds hovered and watched the smoke. Breeze came and the fire glowed. I felt my pants itch and imagined the ones burning to be mine. We used a stick to turn the materials, adding more kerosene occasionally till they were ashes. Silently, we walked into the house and watching the television in silence.
When Aunty Bennie came, she inquired about mother and we said she was in her room. We pleaded with her to tell us all that happened. She did.
‘A friend of mine stays at the University lodge, and your father has a girlfriend there…” she said, ‘She phoned to tell me that your father had come to see his girlfriend….’
We sat on a long sofa, very close to her. ‘Your mother had instructed me to pay my friend so that she would always give us information. So when she did, I came to alert your mother.’
‘We drove to the hostel and my friend pointed at the stupid girl’s room. Before I could hold your mother, she entered the room. My dear, it was a sight. Come see! Hmn, your father wore… the girl was covered with only a piece of wrapper. They startled when they saw us.’
‘She came to her feet and wanted to challenge your mother when your mother hit her with the pestle she was carrying. Your mother was shouting. Husband snatcher! Woooo! Wooooo!’ Aunty Bennie made the noise placing her right palm on her mouth to mimic mother. We laughed aloud.
‘All the people in the lodge came out to watch as your mother dragged the girl outside. Your father did not say anything. He did not even come outside. Your mother cajoled her and went inside the room and took her underwear which was on the ground by the side of the mattress. People were laughing,’ Aunty Bennie narrated.
We laughed uncontrollably and told her that we had burnt the underwear. She said the girl was pleading with mother when she was taking away the cloths. She said the girl’s lodge mates were cajoling and calling her names. We called mother a lion and I wondered how the girl would be feeling each time she remembered her cloths mother left with. She would think that mother would use them for sorcery. ‘If ever the girl has problem in life, she would think it’s from mama,’ I said.
Mother came out of her room and they began to discuss what they would do to the girl if they found her with papa again. They would use her buttocks to weave baskets, they had said. It was then that papa came back and began to yell. Mother had rushed to her room when his car drove in and locked her door.
Papa came in and ignored our greetings. He rushed to mother’s room and after hitting at the door for some time, yelling like thunder and cursing, he came back to the sitting room.
‘You, what are you doing in my house?’ he had asked Aunty Bennie. Before she could reply, he slapped her and pushed her out of our house. We watched, ready to run if he turned on us.
‘Do not show your ugly face in my house again! Never! You are evil, a witch, that is why you have not gotten married!’ We could hear Aunty Bennie’s sobs.
When he had locked the gate himself and got back to the house, we ran to our room and locked the door. He continued his screams. ‘You won’t run forever,’ he was telling all of us.
Some years after the incidence, papa’s mistress came to apologize to mother with her pastor. Mother said everything was fine. One day, mother asked me to follow her. She drove recklessly to a hotel at the express road. I was holding a big pestle. She ran to papa’s car and I followed. We were almost at the car when we saw papa emerging from the reception area with a fair girl.
The girl looked so beautiful. I held the pestle so tight and my eyes met for a split second with that of papa. He was in a trance, before he could utter a word mother swooped on the girl and tore her clothes and they began to fight. Papa ran back to the hotel. I stood beside papa’s car, watching. It all happened so fast. The girl began to run holding her torn clothes together. One of her breasts jumped out and she cupped it with her palms.
Mother made to chase her but turned back, ‘Give me that pestle!’ she shouted, fearfully I gave it to her, and she began to hit it at papa’s car. People watched.
Mother ignored my pleadings for her to stop. She hit the pestle everywhere. She hit it at the two windscreens and at the lights. Then at the sides and at the top. People were shouting at her to stop. The hotel security men came and held her. She got hold of herself and wiggled away from them. ‘Husband snatcher! I shall continue to fight all of you!’ she was shouting.
I could not tell my sister what happened till late at night when I woke her from sleep and narrated the incident to her. She sighed and went back to sleep. In the morning, my sister, Nneoma did not ask me to tell her the story again so that she could laugh as before, she just did not greet mother. I was surprised. In the afternoon when I asked her why she was being hostile to mother, she said mother should not have gone out to fight. That she was insulting herself.
That afternoon, mother came back from work and had barely removed her cloth when papa came in. He was angry, ‘Where is your mother?’ None of us answered. My younger siblings ran to their rooms. They were always afraid of papa. He walked very fast to mother’s room and we followed at a distance. It was a hot afternoon. He threw the door open and pounced on mother. We heard mother shouting. He locked the door.
For about fifteen minutes we could still hear the sounds of the beaten. And we could still hear the shouts from mother. Nneoma walked out of the house. I lurked around and when the beatings and the shouts ceased. I went to the door to eavesdrop. I had eavesdropped for almost a minute and heard nothing save sobs from mother. Then something happened. As my ears were placed on the keyhole, the door suddenly threw open and I fell into mother’s room.
Papa grabbed my neck and pushed me out. I fell to the ground. Then he turned and locked mother inside the room with the key and pounced on me. I could not believe it. He kicked my head, my belly, and my back. When I thought the beating was over. He undid his belt and used the leather to flog me. Mother was hitting at the door, but it was too strong to be broken.
Before papa died, as we had always prayed that he should. He was the talk of the town. Mother had once delivered and he came to see her. He left the hospital because the baby was a girl. The nurses gossiped and mother felt so bad. When she was discharged, she knelt down at the sitting room asking papa to carry the baby. We knelt down too. Then he did.
Papa said he needed a baby boy. He said that if it were to be during the olden days he would have sold all of us out to slavery and would use the proceeds to buy cows in return. He was serious. When Papa died, I nearly thanked God. After the burial, our house was calm, and my siblings did not have to run into the room when cars drove in. I was in the university when he died. After the burial, mother feared not of beatings and of diseases and insults. But she became afraid of one thing. All of us too.
When Papa was alive we could afford everything we wanted. After his death we vacated the quarters and since papa built no house in the city, we relocated to a flat. Mama was a secondary school teacher and things changed. Papa had used all the money he had to change women just like he changed his clothing. As years passed on, we began to feel the gap created by papa’s death. We all began to wear okirika cloths. Mother began to miss papa so much. When there were parties in high places and she was not invited, she would say that it was because her husband was dead.
One day I asked mother if she would want papa to live again, she hesitated before saying, yes. Another day, I asked if she had ever wished papa to die when he was alive. She said nothing.
Now, as I watch this punching bag which we use to learn boxing, these memories torments my mind. I wish I never prayed for papa to die and I wish he did not die. If papa was alive, I would never have come to learn boxing. Papa wanted a male child, but it drove him to his death. He was shot by the same girl whose underwear mother had burnt several years earlier. Mother never used her clothes for witchcrafts but fate played an expensive trick on all of us. She was barren when she got married. She murdered papa to get back at mother. Thinking that mother caused her barrenness.
We found this out from the girl’s girlfriend, who confessed to mother. Mother wanted to tell the police but Nneoma was not in support of that. She said; ‘Our family has had enough insulting publicity already.’
I cannot stop blaming myself for papa’s death. Nneoma withdrew to herself. Perhaps she had prayed for papa to die too. It’s funny how the world turns around and events juxtapose themselves. My friend prescribed boxing as therapy because I still have the fears that one day papa would show up and beat up mother. I wonder if we would hide in the cupboard afraid of seeing his ghost.
The image in the post is part of a “photo essay” showing the lives of Nigeriens. See more of Joe Penny’s work HERE via African Digital Arts.
Obinna Udenwe is a prize winning Nigerian writer. His works have appeared in the Kalahari Review, Tribe-write, Flair Magazine, Kadunaboy and in Literary & Travel Magazine. His debut novel, Satans and Shaitans, is set for release in October. When he is not travelling all over the world, he shares his time between Abakaliki and Enugu.