POSTED 03/04/2018 14:38:33
For long I've meant to write you. Actually I wrote once but lost the book. And there has not been chance. There's never been chance. There's always work to do. There are plates to wash, water to fetch, firewood to split, yam to pound, baby to look after. Even now I've been interrupted twice. First was to go buy groundnut oil. Second was to change the baby's diapers. That's the one I don't like to do. It's not that he cries too much — which he does anyway. Not even 'cause of the smelly yellow paste I have to deal with each time. It's because mum does not like to do it. She makes excuses for herself saying it's something I have to learn if I want my wife to love me.
"Women love men that help them, that don't wait for their wives to care for their children." That's what she says. And, "the best fathers are the ones that change diapers." She's right, should be right.
But dad never does it. At least I never see him. It makes me think they're both hypocrites.
Dear Christmas, I've always wanted to ask why you come with so much dust. Like, the blind and deaf needs no calendar to tell that you have come, by the way the air smells. And for us that see, all around is brown. Brown on the leaves. Brown in the water. Brown everywhere. Even the house isn't too safe although dad insists on locking the windows during the day and opening them only at night. The heat is choking. Leave the bathroom, while yet walking to the parlour you start to sweat again. Sometimes dad coughs, horrible coughs, and he appears to be struggling to breathe. At those times mum fetches him something white, as big as half the leg of a chicken. Dad sticks it in his mouth. After he calms down we can all breathe freely again. He says those things happen to him when he breathes in dust. But I've also observed that he does that when he is hungry, when mum is frying eggs or tomatoes in the kitchen and the house is coloured light ash.
Christmas, I love it when you come despite the dust. The sun shines brighter and the days become more beautiful. It resembles what I see in movies; fallen brown leaves, yellowed by the sun shining through the trees. I love the feeling. And we start to eat three times a day. The food is small but at least it comes three times. Just that we don't get gifts. Father Christmas does not come around. Mum says he's just a fantasy. I didn't believe her.
Last year I wished. And I was the first to wake up the next day. I ran to the parlour but there was nothing. Everything was just the way we left them. Faded smell of dinner, porridge yam. No guest perfume. Daddy's newspapers lay on the arm of the chair and his shoes peeked out from under the chair. My paper, the one I had written my wish in, it lay there, with the candle atop it. Just the way I left it. The crayons, the ones I borrowed to design my paper with so that Father Christmas would like it, they lay there as well looking like chalks on my aunty's table in school.
Is it true what mum says, that Father Christmas is only a tale? Or is it that he does not visit houses that don't have Christmas trees and Christmas lights? Is he drawn to only places with a lot of snow, and ice, and Frosty the snowman waving as neighbours pass? If it's about being good, I've tried. Till now Emeka still questions me for leaving our group. We used to go around taking people's palm kernels. We ran when we heard their door clicking. We would crack the kernels and sell. But when they see me now, they call me "nwa mummy", mummy's handbag. It's not funny, but I bear it 'cause I want Father Christmas to be pleased with me. But...
Or is it the dust? Is Father Christmas scared the dust will brown his beard? But that isn't our fault, is it? Is it not you who chooses to come with the dust? Or is mum just right, that he's only a tale parents make up to coerce their children into behaving well.
And church was fun — only when we dismissed and took pictures. The sermon was long, outrageously long, like the pastor was trying to keep us from extended period of celebration like the "pagans". "Christmas should be a time of solitude, a time of sober reflection," he kept saying as if he was talking to people without ears. That's what they do when it's Valentine's Day. They keep us in church till late in the night when all the clubs are putting up their CLOSED signs; when we were safe, saved from falling into sin. Even dad was angry. I knew by the way mum would put her hand on his fist and rub it with a smile. But that didn't last, she was soon the one asking dad if it was compulsory to stay till dismissal.
After we dismissed, we took pictures. Dad just kept at a corner looking from his watch to his phone then at us. You should have seen us laughing and screaming like people running mad for the first time. But all the while I kept wondering why we were taking pictures when we should be moody.
It's New Year but dad is not here. He has not returned since they took him, the police. They came three days after Christmas. They didn't give him a chance to hug us and say proper goodbyes — which should have only hurt more. But his eyes kept telling me he was innocent of whatever it was they said he had done, what I'm yet to understand. Mum kept shouting "we were going to pay back oo! We just borrowed it for some time. Should we not do Christmas for the kids again? Is it a crime to buy chicken for Christmas?" She clutched Junior the same way she would clutch her breast if it happened to be falling. His screams were only a whisper in her wails. I watched from the window as the van drove off amidst the fast gathering crowd.
We now sell bean balls beside the road, mum and I. We call it akara in Igbo. While mum sits turning the white foams in the oil till they turn brown, flicking heavy beads of sweat off her face, with Junior strapped to her back, careful to know just when to cry, I wipe the plastic container. I should call it a bowl but for the corners and big size. You can put a baby comfortably in it. I wipe it often, else buyers complain of the dust and refuse to buy. The road is not tarred and the cars that speed by have no mercy. Mum now complains of her eyes. And she still has to make dinner when we return all tired, walking like infant zombies. I really want to help but I'm still learning to cook, especially when it comes to adding the salt.
We go to see dad when we can. Friday evenings usually. The officer we always meet, he is not a good man. He stares at mum for some time with a grin and licks his lips. When mum turns to leave his eyes troll down. When dad comes out the officer squeezes his face and throws his head the other way. Dad does not look too well. The redness in his eyes is fast becoming normal. We know he's in pains but he tries to mask it. He winces when mum rubs his shoulders — quickly smiles when he remembers we're looking. He carries Junior in his laps and gives him his fish each time. He now let’s Junior play with the white thing he puts in his mouth when he breathes in dust. Mum asks him if he has used it since we last came. Sometimes he says yes. Sometimes no. Mum's eyes are always red and watery when we leave. Those nights she is the first to go to bed.
I'm only realizing how much I miss dad. Each day my sisters, especially Mma, ask me when he will return. At those times I want to cry. I want to let my silent sobs burst into wails, perhaps worse than Junior's. I want to tell them that as much as I wished I knew, I didn't know. That he might still be away for some time, long time. That they might not recognize him if he walked in through the door. But I have to act big. Mum does not say it but I know I'm the man of the house now. I should be the one to say sorry. I should be the one to console, not the one to be consoled.
Today, a scream. I run out of the room and there he is standing at the door. Mum is hugging him and Junior is clinging to his leg. Mma and others are screaming in the parlour. I've never hugged dad before, only the rigid handshakes and side hugs when I take the first position in school. That's why I forget there's something called time when he puts his hands around me and I dissolve into him. I don't hold back when my eyes start to itch. When I look up he's crying too.
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