You wish you could tell your mother to shut up. Especially when she goes on about Mrs Amboson and her ‘wayward daughters’. Sometimes you wonder why God planted you in the community gossip and made you eternally indebted to her.
Growing up, you were silent when everyone preferred their mother to all other mothers in the world; when they thought their mothers cooked the best okro soup or made the best kunu. You were silent because your mother’s okro made you want to throw up. The large chunks of okro floating on the watery, too-salty, grass green soup irritated you and it never made sense why she dropped in the dry fish together with its head and sharp bones. The slap she gave you at age eleven when you told her she cooked with too much salt, still rings in your ear. It made you wiser. You knew not to tell her that pouring so much water after sieving the millet paste made the kunu taste like sugar and water- not like the kunu Mama Barna sold which was always finished by afternoon because everybody loved it. You too bought the kunu and squeezed all the contents of the transparent little polythene bag down your throat, your tongue barely enjoying its smooth milky taste- not too sweet, rich and with a consistency that made it glide down your throat. There had to be no trace of the empty, wet bag because your mother would burst an artery if she realised you poured her free kunu in the sink and bought Mama Barna’s own.
You have been at home a few weeks after being away one year at the Federal University in Nsukka where instead of Medicine which you applied for, they made you study Nursing. The academic staff union strike has brought you back home and you are tired of sitting at home with your mother who has just retired from the Ministry of Health.
Your mother is with Mrs Audu, a woman you can’t stand. You hate that Mrs Audu completely shaves her eyebrows but leaves the many strands of hair on her chin. They are going on about Mrs. Amboson’s daughter who has been very sick for the past year at home. The family says they don’t know what exactly is wrong with her. But they swear- your mother and Mrs Audu- that they know exactly what is wrong with the girl. Your mother says she is sick from what she ‘packed’ from all those cars with dark tints that come to drop her in the evening. She claps her hands when she speaks and adjusts her loose head tie every few minutes. She should just tie the damn thing properly, you say to yourself.
‘Where was her mother when all those shady looking men were bringing the girl home in different cars,’ Mrs Audu asks.
‘Ato! Where was she? Ai, no daughter of mine can try that rubbish. Asabe knows me o, zan kashe ta ne, I will kill her before she brings any shame on me.’ Your mother sounds so sure of herself.
The tap in the kitchen sink doesn’t work and as you bring in a bucket of water to wash plates, you want to say to them in the dining room that ‘the girl’, has a name- Sim, short for Simnom, meaning God’s love in Jaba (you would say that last bit even though you know they both understand Jaba); that ‘all those cars’ were actually just two cars- an old Honda 1986 model and a newer Peugeot 307; that ‘all those shady looking men’, was actually one man, a boy actually (you don’t think he is more than 24), her rich cousin who she always begged to take her to town and who was always in a hurry to leave when he dropped her because he had ‘parols’ or ‘runs’ to get back to.
Sim is glad you can come.
‘Has Yoba come yet?’ you ask.
She shakes her head and looks away. She shakes her head too when you ask if Rimkat, Susan, or Doshiya have come. None of the old friends. You realise you shouldn’t be asking as a tear rolls down her cheek when you finally ask if Greg came. Of course they wouldn’t come. You are the only one who disobeys your mother and visits the bad girl who got a sickness from her badness. It doesn’t matter that of all your friends she was the only one who refused to sneak out on Saturday nights, refused to carry a little plastic bottle of clear gin around, and refused Alhaji Rabiu’s money because she didn’t want the calls and demands that would follow. You feel terrible because you catch yourself also cringing at her scanty, brittle, light brown hair that used to be full, dark and long; her heavy breathing; her sharp prominent bones that used to hide inside fleshy curves; her paleness that used to be dark smooth skin. The only thing that remains is her voice- the one you wish you had, that everyone wish they had- slightly coarse and only a few decibels above a whisper in speaking, but glorious in song.
No one calls her now, begging her to sing at their children’s parties or wedding anniversaries, or birthdays.
You look at the edges of her dress, recently amended to fit her shrinking body. You know she did it herself because of the rough sewing. Her hands tremble and she can’t hold a needle still.
Your phone rings while you are thinking of something kind to say to fill up the choking silence. You feel guilty about taking a call, but she gestures with her eyes, that it is ok. It is Solomon. Solomon, the boy who lives in town who is three years ahead of you in your University, whose calls you are always in a hurry to take. The thought of Greg who has disappeared makes you hesitate. In the seconds it takes for the call to ring out and for him to call again, you wonder if with all your devotion to Solomon, a little unknown illness is all it would take for his proclamations to mean nothing. You pick the call the second time, and hear him call you baby. It doesn’t make you smile or giggle audibly. So he says again, ‘Baby, you there?’
‘Solomon I am really busy right now,’ you whisper. It surprises you that you call him Solomon, not darling. He pauses and you can feel his shock. It doesn’t make you worry that he might get upset.
‘Ok,’ he says, ‘you still coming at two?’
You raise your head and look at the clock. There is only ten minutes left until two. He wants you to say, you are on your way right now. You open your mouth to say it, but you breathe instead and tell yourself, you do not need to rush out of Sim’s house and leave her sitting all by herself. There is only one thing on his mind and you know it is not you.
‘No, I need to be here. I am sorry, I just got here. In the evening, perhaps?’
‘What? But you told me two yesterday. You know what, don’t bother coming later!’
He waits. He waits for you to say it. Sorry darling. Please darling. I beg you darling. Ok, let me come now darling.
‘Ok,’ you say calmly and drop the call.
Your eyes stare at the phone for a bit. He didn’t even ask what you were doing or why you couldn’t make it to his house; he doesn’t care. It is not anger that fills your heart now. It is resolve. Solomon can go to hell.
Sim smiles. She doesn’t say to you, ‘it’s ok, you should have gone’. You smile back and hold her hand telling yourself, you will come more often.
‘Remember the day after school we went to Mr. Biya’s school farm and uprooted his sweet potatoes?’
‘You mean the day you got me suspended. I wasn’t even taking the sweet potatoes o. It was you and Rimkat o.’
You laugh loudly. It was your idea when you were both in Form 3, to pull a few sweet potatoes from the ground, and even though she protested, Sim came along with you. The security man caught her because she couldn’t run as fast as you and handed her to Mr. Biya. Sim refused to say your name, insisting she was alone at the farm and got suspended from school for two weeks.
‘Sometimes, I just want someone to hold me. I miss it, being held and kissed. I could do without the kissing, but I just want someone who really cares to hold me.’
You remember the last time you were held and kissed. It was exactly eleven days ago, not long after you came back. Before you knew you had missed your period. Solomon held you a bit too tightly and kissed you a bit too roughly, but you didn’t mind that day. Now you wonder why you have been calling this selfish person your boyfriend. You think of going one year without being held by anyone, everyone running away from you just in case your sickness will affect them by looking at you or greeting you. Tears fill your eyes and make everything blurry and you know if you blink, they will roll down your cheeks.
You get up and take her by the hand lifting her up from the bed where she has been sitting.
‘Are you leaving?’ She asks.
She smells of many drugs as you hold her, not too tightly, and close your eyes. The tears fall from your face to her shoulder.
She holds you too.
‘I care,’ you say, ‘very much.’
You cry together. Your tears are from many things. From knowing you will leave Solomon. From the decision to call that Nurse whose number is in your small leather purse to take care of the pregnancy you have just discovered from peeing on that Home Pregnancy test kit. From all that Sim has lost. From all that you will lose.
Sim doesn’t need to hear any of your problems today. You are just glad to be with her.
Evening creeps up on both of you and you leave her house with a feeling you haven’t felt before. A feeling both sad and happy.
‘I will bring you a nice book by Helon Habila I read, the guy who wrote Waiting for an Angel,’ you tell Sim as you leave.
You have not finished Measuring Time yet, but you will finish soon. Page 269 is dog-eared and you have just fifty-three pages to go. You are a slow reader so it will take you two days. It was you who gave her Waiting for an Angel and Eric Miyeni’s collection of poems which you let her have because she loved it so much.
Two days have passed and your mother wonders aloud why you have been locking yourself up in your room before she shouts the latest gossip to you from outside your room.
‘That wayward girl has died. The mother said she was just coughing this morning until she stopped breathing.’
You want to tell your mother to shut up but you begin to cry. You should have taken the book earlier. It was only fifty-three pages you had left and you could have just bought another one. You bury your head in your pillow and swear you will tell your mother all about it so that she can stop calling people she doesn’t know wayward. Perhaps when she hears that you not only got pregnant but did the abortion yesterday in a quiet almost deserted clinic on the other side of town, she will become quiet. You will tell her it happened very quickly and watch her squirm in disbelief.
It annoys you how fires only burn when you don’t want them to. The choking smoke from cooking with firewood takes forever before it becomes a red crackling fire, but when it is a home it takes only a few minutes before the flames spread and eat up everything; when it is this book you want to disappear with the memory of things painful, you need to stand there, with a long stick, turning the pages for the fire to eat it up completely. It is Sim’s book and you have no right to keep it.
The wind blows and the ashes, grey and black, leap into the air, little by little, until there is only a dark patch where you set the fire. You walk about- like the first line on the dog-eared page 269 of Measuring Time- in silence, aimlessly, passing the houses by the roadside.