Block 244 – Flat One

Year: 2000

It was a Saturday morning made for washing clothes, eating ogi and akara and sleeping aimlessly. The residents of Block 244, Abesan Estate, were out in the shared backyard sorting out laundry for washing, starching and drying. The launderers were a mixed bunch of wives, oldest children, house-helps and live-in relatives. Soapy suds from washing bowls ran in rivulets towards the gutter while, the voices of Bright Chimezie, Blackky and Onyeka Onwenu wafted and melded from tape recorders.

I was spreading clothes on the line while my mother sat on the stool beside me washing the pricey underwear and lace dresses she did not believe me competent enough to wash. “Is there enough space on the line?” she asked, taking quick stock of the amount of washing left to do and the available space on the shared clothesline. I responded yes and continued my spreading. Mother wanted to be done in time to get ready for my father’s visit; they had made plans to drive down to V.I to try out the recently opened Oceanview restaurant. Me, I was glad I would have the flat to myself and not be subjected to their giggling, touching and kissing.

“Good morning, Sisi Ìmísí.” My mother looked up at her name; it was Mr. Otudeme from Flat 6, dressed in a crisp white kaftan and taking care not to step in muddy water. “Sorry to trouble you. I have been meaning to talk to you about a loan from your bank, but I have not been around.”

I saw Mother roll her eyes discreetly. There she was, holding her favorite green satin panties and someone wanted to talk about bank loans. This was not new; because she worked in a bank, she was inundated with questions about bank loans from neighbors who wanted to finance something and everything. Always, the enquiries came with an undertone that because they knew a bank person, the lending process would be easier or waived. They did not understand – or chose not to understand – that she had little control over lending decisions and could not just “get a loan for friends.” As if my mother would risk her job for neighbors who barely tolerated her presence in the building.

Mother was responding or was about to respond – I cannot remember- when a strident voice interrupted her. It was Mrs. Otudeme. “They said it! They said it and now I can see it!” At first, no one reacted – not Mother, not me, not the other tenants. She came upon us with a clouded countenance as though she had come to pick up a leftover fight with Mother.

“Oho!” she continued, “What are you discussing with my husband?!”

“Mummy Uche,” her husband began. “Don’t mummy Uche me!” she snapped. An unnatural quiet came upon the backyard. Bright, Blackky and Onyeka fell silent.

Mrs. Otudeme faced Mother squarely. “You are very greedy. Hian! Only you,” she said, pointing her forefingers at Mother, “only you want to eat from everyone. The one you stole is not enough for you?” Her voice grew louder, and I watched, embarrassed as Mother said nothing, and other people watched, saying nothing.

I could not blame people for being wary. Mrs. Otudeme was notorious for being cantankerous. She was the kind of person you did not want to offend because she would drag out the fault until entreaties were meaningless and the offender became offended at her haggling.

I spoke, “Ma, please.”

“Will you shut up? Bastard child. Like mother like daughter. What do you want to say? What is burning in that your smelly mouth that you want to say?” At this, some of the neighbors were finally roused: “It is enough Mummy Uche. That is too much.”

“Ótitó,” Mother said, standing up and wiping her hands on her wrapper. “It is okay. Your husband is here. Ask what you want from him. Don’t call my name, do you hear me? Don’t ever call my daughter’s name!”

The neighbors were further roused: “Ah Auntie Ìmísí, ẹ take care easy.” As if Mother had not been taking “ẹ easy” with all of them and their snide comments and superiority and entitlement. She ignored them and stalked into our flat, slapping the door behind her. I followed her, leaving behind a small heap of clothes I would later come to carry once I was certain no one else was outside.

Most of the wives in the building did not like Mother out of principle: she was a single mother carrying on with a man that was suspected to be married. As far as they were concerned, none of their husbands were safe; it was only a matter of time before she turned to them. The husbands did not like that she was a single woman who did not defer to them during association meetings or give room for the idle conversations they all seemed to want to have with her. They made it a point to call her Auntie Ìmísí or Sisi Ìmísí – not Mummy Àmìọlá – as though to show that they did not recognize her legitimacy as a mother. I know this to be so because everyone else with a child – even Mummy Wálé in Flat two who was unmarried – got the “Mummy” tag. The difference was that Mummy Wálé was unmarried and completely single: a reformed soiled dove.

“Please oh I am a sisí,” Mother liked to say. “Do I look like mummy of anybody to you?” she asked, turning around to show off her body: big breasts, a not-so-flat stomach and a massive behind. She was a beautiful woman and she easily fit the archetype of a husband snatching homewrecker.

I wish I had her ability to overlook dislike. I was a people pleasing, acceptance-needing bundle masked behind shyness. Every insult bruised me; every slight – perceived or real – pained me to my core and so, our neighbors’ dislike was a constant source of worry for me. I often caught myself daydreaming of scenarios that would magically lead to them liking and accepting my mother and me. The daydreams usually involved some heroism on my part: saving the landlord’s youngest daughter from the soak-away in the backyard or putting out a carelessly lit fire in a neighbor’s house or – the most elaborate of them all – trapping robbers like the boy from Home Alone movie.

Till such a time when one of my dreams could come true, I had to endure the other teenagers on the Block who mirrored their parents’ behaviors but sharpened it with teenage cruelty. When I was younger, Táíyé, the daughter of the landlord and self-appointed children leader, would tell the other kids that I was not allowed to play ten-ten or suwe with them. The same Táíyé would knock on the door to our flat to watch home videos with me, smiling as though we were best of friends. I learnt to take what was offered and spent my free time watching home videos and reading pacesetter novels.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………

The Multilinks landline drew our neighbors closer to us. Suddenly, everyone was friendlier because they had a family member or a friend that they needed to keep in touch with. The new friendliness grated at Mother’s nerves and she only allowed a few people – Mummy Wálé from Flat Two and Auntie Luchi from Flat Four – to use the white landline.

I was more liberal. During weekdays, when I was home from school and Mother was still at work, I let some of the other teenagers receive phone calls from their boyfriends and girlfriends and – in Kweku’s case – sugar mummies. It made me happy to have something they wanted; it was everything I dreamed of.

Táíyé came by the flat more often, under the pretense of wanting to watch home videos with me. Yet, within minutes of her arrival, someone would call the phone asking for her. She made long phone calls, chatting in low tones, twirling the telephone wire in her fingers, and leaving lip gloss all over the receiver. Once, she spoke for fifteen minutes and when I signaled to her to stop the call, she pleaded for “just one more minute” and continued giggling with her caller. It upset me but I did not tell her it upset me; instead, I settled back on one of the dining chairs, seething with rage at how much she was racking up in phone bills.

“Who are you calling on the phone?” Mother asked when the phone bill for that month came. “Or are these people trying to cheat me? Which one are calls to Kaduna and Enugu? Do you know anybody in Kaduna?” I mumbled something about network glitches and she soon moved on with a promise to go and scatter the Multilinks office.

I got away with a lot with Mother. She rarely scolded me and never hit me. It was one of the wonderful things about her. She did not view parenting as a war against uselessness, immorality and unseriousness that had to be cured – from childhood – with slaps and punishments.

Táíyé was surprised when I told her I could not remember the last time my mother beat me. “My mother slaps me all the time. Every small thing is gboa on my face as if it’s wood she’s slapping.” This was true. Many times, neighbors had to go rescue her or one of her siblings from their mother’s quick hands.

“Ko make sense,” Mother said after one such rescue. “Beating a child the way you would not beat an animal because of what? Lipstick in her bag? Is lipstick a crime?” Privately, I thought lipstick was the least of Táíyé’s mother’s worries if the phone calls I eavesdropped on were anything to go by. The next time Táíyé came to the flat, her face still bore marks of her mother’s beating. I could tell that she was embarrassed and so I talked all through the movie to put her at ease.

“She said I would turn out like your mother if I continued down the path I was going” Táíyé said, interrupting my rambling.

“What?”

She looked at me, a strange emotion on her face, “My mother. She said she was beating me so that I would not become like Auntie Ìmísí.”

I did not know what to say to that or why she would tell me that, and so I said nothing. On the television screen, Eucharia Anunobi and Zach Orji were frolicking in a bathtub. I decided there and then that Táíyé was never coming into the flat ever again. She and her mother could both fall into the ṣalanga for all I cared. The next time she knocked on the door, I told her the phone was no longer working and I was too busy to watch a movie. After a few more tries, she got the message and stopped coming.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………

My parents’ love story was like a badly scripted Nigerian film: Girl meets Boy, and they fall in love. Boy did not have money and so Girl leaves him for a rich man. The rich man leaves Girl after she falls pregnant; Girl aborts the baby and goes back to being single without love or money. Years later, Boy – who is now rich and reasonably popular – sees Girl on the road while driving his Isuzu Rodeo. In the film, Boy would have wound down his car window to give Girl a speech about waiting for God’s time and how her greed made her miss out on her ordained blessings. The film would have ended with Girl looking on in regret as Boy drove off into the afternoon.

In my parents’ story, Father glimpsed Mother – by the merest of chance – on the opposite lane on the Lagos State Secretariat road at Ikeja. “He only saw the back of my head, but immediately recognized me. He did an illegal U-turn to chase me.” Mother liked to tell this part of the story as though an illegal U-turn and being recognized by the back of her head was irrefutable proof of love. By then, Father was married with one child.

“I was in a serious relationship too,” Mother said, “in fact, I was a few months from getting married myself.”

“Why didn’t you?” I asked.

“I loved your father and there was no point pretending I didn’t.”

“What about your fiancé?” I asked curious. She shrugged, not knowing or caring what happened to him. Once Father came back into her life, nothing else mattered.

I wondered if she wondered about being a bad influence on me; whether she worried I would grow up to follow a man even at a risk to my respectability. It seemed inevitable, based on the sentiments of my neighbors and the movies I watched, that I was destined to lead a broken life; after all, I was an illegitimate child of a single mother who was living an amoral life. I worried about it myself; I did not want to be like my mother. I wanted to live a safe life, a life that did not require me to be braver or stronger than I needed to be. A life that did not require defending atypical choices.

Father’s wife, Omada Idoko, was a doctor with an eponymous hospital in the Ayobo-Abesan-Jakande axis. Her profiles in socialite magazines – she was always in one list or the other as the brilliant wife of the amiable Engineer Idoko – hinted at her brilliance but detailed her style and beauty. I wanted to know more about her, and so I scoured style and fashion magazines at the salon where I made my hair. Sometimes, I asked Father to buy me newspapers that had profiled him in the hope that I could find out more information about his wife and their children.

“Would you visit his wife’s hospital if you were sick?” I asked Mother once. She laughed and laughed and laughed but did not give an answer. “Does she know you?” I asked meaning does she know of you? Does she know of me?

“Why are you asking me all these questions Àmì?”

“I just want to know before I will meet her somewhere by accident or something.” She looked unconvinced at my excuse. “You have seen her in all those magazines you carry around, haven’t you?”

“I have not been…”

“It is okay to be curious about her, but I am not going to talk about her with you.”

Sometimes I judge Mother in my head.  What did it feel like being on the fringes of the life of someone you loved? Did she ever want more? She claimed that she did not, and she acted like she did not, but I know that on some days, she drove by Father’s house in Jakande. It did not seem that there had ever been the option of him leaving his wife for her. Thankfully, there was never the talk of her becoming a second wife. She hated the idea: “Imagine dealing with another woman and other children and her family members on top of trying to schedule time with your husband. Too much wahala.” She thought it archaic, even a little shameful, being a second wife.

Father and I got along as well as we could. He was like a favorite uncle who showed up occasionally with Mr. Biggs, too many gifts and lots of interesting stories about his life. He did not try to parent me, and I stopped trying to be parented by him after I came to terms with the limits of his affection for me. His focus was Mother. He took excellent care of her. He gave her things freely: the flat, her V-boot, vacations. Everything was in her name.

“At least if you want to leave me, you can leave in style.” He said to her when he purchased a second car – a Peugeot 306 – for her.

“Tah! Let me see what would make me leave you.”

“All your mouth that’s how you left me for rich man that time.”

She laughed heartily at the oft repeated joke between them. “You too, what were you looking at when they carried your babe? Oshisco.” They joked about their past and present without resentment – or perhaps the resentment showed in my absence – and in those moments, I allowed myself to hate them for being reckless and selfish in their bubble without a care for others.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………

It was a hot Sunday afternoon, months since Táíyé stopped visiting me and a day after one of Father’s visits. Mother and I had just come back from church, and I was in the kitchen boiling rice and warming fried stew for lunch when someone knocked on the door.

“Tani o?” Mother shouted from her room. I waited a few seconds to hear her footsteps going to the door; when I did not, I hissed in annoyance and went to check. It was Mrs. Otudeme. She was still dressed in her church finery: a purple and white suit with matching shoes and an elaborate hat. On her suit was a ribbon reading Women’s Leadership Forum.

“Good afternoon ma,” I said in surprise.

“Àmìọlá, how are you? is your mother home?” She asked, looking into the flat through the netted door. I hesitated for a second debating which answer Mother would prefer I give.

“Who is it?” Mother asked coming up behind me. When she saw Mrs. Otudeme, she stopped. “Yes? What is it?”

“Auntie Ìmísí good afternoon. Please, I came to talk to you.”

“About what?”

“Please. Let me come inside so I can say sorry properly biko” She removed her hat in a conciliatory manner, looking for all the world like she was in turmoil. Mother stared at her for a few uncomfortable minutes before she opened the door and let her into the flat. She directed her to the dining table and waved me away. She did not offer her anything to drink.

“I am very sorry,” Mrs. Otudeme began.

I wondered briefly, cynically, as I walked away if she had come to apologise because she was sorry or if it were so she could get access to the landline or perhaps, like in Nigerian films, if it was because her pastor had informed her that the thing holding her destiny was Mother’s forgiveness. If it was, she was lucky because Mother was not petty; the only persons (and things) she held to heart were my father and me.

 

Comments

  • T’wanise

    3 years agoReply

    Super interesting! Echos and nostalgia of the 1990s from a first person POV. Keep it up 👍🏼

    • locallagosbabe

      3 years agoReply

      Hi T’wanise, thank you for reading.

  • Iyke

    3 years agoReply

    When do we get the follow up please?

    • locallagosbabe

      3 years agoReply

      Hi Iyke, thank you for reading! There’s no follow-up just yet. Please check back 🙂

  • Tolu

    3 years agoReply

    I really enjoyed reading this.

    • Kunle

      3 years agoReply

      Now I can’t stop thinking about Sisi Imisi, Amiola, Mrs Otudeme and Peugeot 306.
      👍🏼 👍🏼

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Welcome! I am a recovering writer learning the ropes again. It is a pleasure to have you on this journey with me. I hope you enjoy reading the stories I write, as much as I (hopefully) enjoy writing them.