Flies buzzed everywhere. Every available space on the dusty street had leftover food strewn for stray animals. The bleating of goats mingled with almanjiri singsong voices as they begged for alms. Most of them had lengths of cord thrown around their neck, sling style. Their unwashed bowls were licked clean by scrawny fingers and only bore a trace of oil. Their cries begged for attention but the traders had gotten so used to them. A flick of the horsetail from the enterprising trader usually sent away even the most persistent.
Whinery Yard was famous for its akpu. No one could tell how the cassava loving area got its name and even the worst of illiterates learnt to pronounce it. The smell of dawn usually started with foul smelling water hurled in an arm length posture from huge tubs onto the hard packed earth. It was wont to jolt urine-soaked children and immature teenagers from the comfort of their soggy mattress. The smells were intertwined with cock crows, toddler cries, scrambling of roaches, and asinine squeals from grass-cutter sized rats. Whinery Yard rats never failed in their unintentional bid to scare the wits out of the unsuspecting.
The street resembled a splash of colours at the crack of dawn with all sorts of smells clamouring the nasal pathways for attention so that the fetid boils of Whinery lunatic usually looked better than its streets. Yet, children were born and raised in its unsanitary state.
Another day dawned on Whinery Yard and it was to this that Ukeme awoke. In his faded boxers that had seen too much washing in its better days, he lay on the bug eaten mattress that was riddled with holes. The holes had once held keepsakes and stashes of money, before the bed bugs ascended to power. The sounds woke him up as well as many others and his routine was always the same; perpetual lateness. Those extra idle minutes did not bother him. He gazed into nothingness, still as a statue on the slipper-thin mattress. His hands were folded behind his head, ebony coloured sallow looking skin as his brain switched gears from the corridors of sleep to grouchy contemplation. The mottled skin of his arms looked painful as if by hidden landmines, every bit as bumpy as a typical Nigerian road.
The Yard’s tenants were boisterous despite its bleak mornings. They took delight in living and had ‘Hope’ stamped on their foreheads. The monotony of existence in the Yard, almost non-existent rations made learning next to impossible. Ukeme was used to this and he had gotten quite adept at fending for himself. Every morning he ate koko with hot akara balls with only few exceptions in his routine. As he got off the mattress to join the queue at the toilet, he thought of many things. He badly wanted to poo but the vacant stare in some of the neighbours’ jaundiced eyes left little thought as to whether he had strength enough to wait his turn. He walked past various stages of poo-pregnant tenants and went outside to inhale some equally foul air into his lungs and joined those urinating against the wall.
The noise grew louder as more people joined the fray. Motorcycles were washed and cars were primed in readiness for the day’s journey. The exhaust from rickety cars sucked what oxygen was present in the foul smelling air. Few people coughed. Life was tough in the Yard and living it was an art at Whinery Yard.
Ukeme dressed for school after rub and shine and tried to ignore the elbows of his siblings because there was no space in the room. He was the oldest although he was not born the oldest. He folded his wiry frame into the only arm chair in the room when the space almost became a battleground. Most days, he tried to avoid the school’s assembly and today, he did not demand obedience from his body. His stomach growled momentarily, a reminder that he had slept hungry the previous night as usual. He rubbed his hand across his face and patted his beard. It was really more of stubble but he took great pride tending it and that involved always having a brush at hand.
His afro haircut was also well maintained. It had a comb permanently stuck in it and even when he was not combing it, his hair stood on its end; obedient to its master. He tried to be neat but did not always succeed. He nodded to the loud afro-reggae belching out of a loudspeaker somewhere in the Yard as he waited for his mother. As he sat brooding, his empty stomach made a mockery of his thoughts and he smacked at it with veiled anger. His siblings were all dressed for school but they were all waiting for their mother, she was not to be seen when they all woke up. Their emaciated bodies lacked real energy, their frail skeletons vibrated with every spoken word. Their communal food bowl mocked them in its empty glory and they rubbed discoloured tuffs of hair.
Unconsciously, Ukeme groaned and the twins turned to him. “Broda wetin apun?” Their oily faces stared at him with double expressions as they lowered themselves to the cracked floor.
“Nothing! Abi I complain giv yu?”
“Sorry o,” they chorused in unison. Their apology reeked of sarcasm.
“Sorry for yourselves,” he shot back. “Be praying your mother arrives soon!”
Their murmurings did not quite reach him. He had his own troubles to contend with and he stood up to go outside. The Yard was emptying as residents hurried out to work and as he drew the curtain, he came face to face with his mother. He stepped aside to let her limp in.
Every occupant of the Yard had different versions of a mournful tale. Their countenance often bore similar looks even though their faces looked different. For most, the economic hardship melted their defences and sent their feet scuttling in the direction of the Yard. Very few of them ever left; possibly because they got complacent. Some even earned titles – Chairman of Whinery Yard Tenants – others stiffened their neck like mature oxen. Still, others gave up and commanded a performance during their funeral even if a heavy rain might soon wash away their remains from the shallow grave dug by hungry men.
Some, like Mekere, struggled albeit questionably to eke out a living by all means. It made no difference to most others but her son, Ukeme. His silence criticized her although they never spoke about the ‘work’ that kept her away most nights. It was their unspoken agreement. It also kept him from home during the day and they danced around each other, each avoiding the other as much as their close quarters allowed. The only time Ukeme dared to broach the subject his ear was split and had to be stitched.
Ukeme referred to Mekere as his aunt if he had to address her directly and to her, she felt she had lost her son, a son who was only half her age. She had married her runaway husband at a very early age, when she was only sixteen. Maturity had come to her equally early as she struggled to understand womanhood. In looks, she was okay and her stomach was still firm even though she had borne many children. She felt all of her thirty-two years as she limped into the Yard, a garish looking blond wig in one hand. Her makeup had run and her eyes were streaked with black where her mascara had settled. Her red hot lipstick had drawn a trail to nowhere on the far right side of her cheek as if she had had to wipe it off in a hurry.
She felt like a broken doll, a mannequin cast aside in favour of a prettier one. Her eyes seemed hooded, glazed over as she stepped over the threshold of her house. The house that had never become a home to her. Her clothes swished and caught a rusty nail at the door and she stumbled. The twins screamed as they caught sight of her,
“Mummy oyoyo.” Their sound carried to where Ukeme stood rooted. Wearing the previous day’s boxers, he stared hard at nothing in the distance.
“How are you? Where is Edidiong?” her throat was sore and her voice sounded trapped between the back of her tongue and larynx.
The twins pointed to their quiet sister who was huddled in a corner, a child who always wanted to be invisible by folding in on herself. Mekere’s heart tugged in her chest as she looked at her only daughter for whom life in the Yard was harsh and brutal.
“Welcome Mummy”, she whispered.
“Come, let me see your face better”, Mekere called to her.
She was one year younger than the twins and hardly spoke, a reclusive child. Edidiong did not move, she only blinked her eyes to show she was not a statue. Constantly the source of the twins’ amusement, she had become indifferent to their jeers and taunts. She preferred her own company and she watched in silence as her mother straightened some crumpled bills and gave the twins breakfast money.
“Edidiong …” her mother called. She stood up and her mother looked at her swollen eyes and running nose that dripped onto her pink uniform blouse. She folded her hands in front of her staring at the floor and only looked up when her mother raised her chin with her index finger.
“What happened?” Edidiong shook her head, nothing. From the moment she woke up to find her mother absent, she knew where her mother had gone. And because she was quiet she sometimes heard what their neighbours said about her mother. No, nothing happened other than life and it had to end soon.
“Please mummy, can I stay home from school today?” Her voice caught in her throat as she tried to speak louder. She hiccupped.
“And you tell me nothing is wrong. You don’t look good so perhaps I can excuse you.”
The twins piped up with a song, “We want to stay home too.”
Their mother’s throaty laughter filled the room. “Oh no, I can’t handle you boys. Off you go!”
“Cry cry baby!” they mocked their sister as they ran out of the house. The room was quiet as the twins left. Mother and daughter faced each other across the room. Mekere was wondering what she would do about her reclusive daughter who she sensed knew where she went even though her absence went unexplained. The silence stretched as Mekere’s mind went to a faraway place many, many years past.