I was seven years old.
I sat in the couch watching Power Rangers. Ekene was sitted opposite me, across the sitting room, engrossed. I heard Nkoli’s screams. They were punctuated with cries of “aunty biko“. I wanted to walk into the kitchen and ask mummy to stop with the beating. Canes were not meant for human beings. I wanted to tell her that the missing N200 was not so much money to warrant such lashing. I wanted to sit with Nkoli in the comfort of her room and rub off her tears with the back of my palm, to soothe her pain, to be a man. That was what I wanted to do, but I sat still, hugging my legs close to my chest, watching power rangers.
I remember when Nkoli first came to live with us, how she came to live with us.
Early one morning, Benji, that’s what my parents called him, came visiting. We were just about to have breakfast and mummy was setting the table.
“Odikwa mma?” my father asked, when he came out of his room. His wrapper was tied around his waist and a thick sweater clutched at his neck. That was his defense against a cold harmattan morning.
Benji laughed. “Nobody asks such a question when a man goes to visit his brother in his home, especially when this brother is seen with his family only during Christmas.” He put his chewing stick in his mouth, purposely working it on his incissors.
My father’s laugh was hearty. “You must join us for breakfast then.” He led the way to the dining table.
Uncle Benji ate well, and when mummy offered more slices of bread after the initial six she gave to him, he did not refuse. Afterwards, he sat together with my parents in the sitting room and talked some while, a long while.
In the evening, uncle Benji returned, and with him was Nkoli, small, timid, dressed in an oversized pinafore and a washed out yellow blouse. Cinderella! her pinafore exclaimed. She stood by the door, carrying a black polythene bag which contained all her belongings.
“I hope she doesn’t wet the bed?” mummy asked while uncle Benji downed a bottle of small stout.
“Maka gini? She’s about fifteen or sixteen or seventeen years old. She has stopped bedwetting, okwa ya?” uncle Benji replied looking at Nkoli in askance. She nodded her head.
“Well, don’t blame me for asking,” my mother said, “Chioma wet the bed till the very day she left our house. She was twenty. I will not tolerate that from any other adult.”
“That is Chioma. This is Nkoli. Two different people,” uncle Benji said. He laughed at the smartness of his response. Mum shrugged.
Two bottles of stout gone, uncle Benji got on his feet. “Daalu so, nne,” he said to my mother, “Safe journey tomorrow.” He shook my father’s hand.
“Daddy bye-bye,” Nkoli called out. Uncle Benji turned, smiling, and waved at her.
Nkoli would follow us back to Lagos. Our new housegirl, mummy explained to me and Ekene. And so she became part of our family.
One evening, mummy came back unusually late from work. “I was chosen,” she said to dad.
“Congrats,” he said, flashing her a broad smile.
“Mummy, what happened?” Ekene asked.
“I’ll be travelling to Geneva next week for a course,” she said to me & Ekene. “I’ll likely get a promotion after it.” Even though we did not fully understand, we smiled too and hugged her tight. It was good news.
It was the day mummy travelled that I saw Wale in our house for the first time. I knew him. He lived a few houses away, and washed cars on most mornings as I rode to school. But today, he sat in the sofa, dad’s usual, and flipped TV channels with the remote control. He must have been the reason Nkoli delayed in answering the gate. Our school bus driver had honked and honked and honked. “Sorry o, I busy,” was all she said to the driver as she let I and Ekene in and locked the gate.
“Fine boys, how was school today?” Wale asked as we entered the sitting room.
“Fine,” Ekene shouted, flopping onto the rug. “I want caprisonne.”
“This one, na him quiet,” Nkoli explained my silence, pointing at me. “You people should go and wear your house cloth, fast fast. Make I warm soup.”
When we returned from changing our clothes, Wale was gone and Nkoli was in the kitchen humming a familiar tune. The smell of ogbono soup reached my nose.
“Uncle Wale came to visit us,” Nkoli said as she served our lunch, “It is even him that help me to pump water.”
I pushed away my plate of eba. “I want indomie,” I said frowning.
“I follow time-table mummy give me. This afternoon, eba. Indomie for night.”
I still frowned. “Ngwanu eat, after I give you and Ekene chocolate.” Nkoli was at my side, rubbing my head and adjusting my collar. I pulled my plate of eba close to me. I divided the entire mound into small balls, about ten, then I dug my fore finger into one ball and swirled it in the plate of soup. Ekene did the same thing, always the copy cat. This method made eating eba less burdensome.
Every day for the rest of that week, we came home from school to meet Wale in our sitting room, in dad’s favourite seat. He always asked how school was and gave us eclairs before leaving. Nkoli was in awe of him. I could tell by the she spoke of him, “Wale na man,” she liked to say. Nkoli did not go to school. Her school was on holiday, she explained to us. The week mummy returned was the week her school resumed.
I was seven years old.
I heard the blare of daddy’s car horn and mummy’s response from her room. She grabbed her silver heels and matching handbag, and hurrying down the staircase, shouted instructions at Nkoli. “Make sure lunch and dinner are served on time. We’ll be back late. Let me not come back to meet any place dirty. Clean all the rooms, okay?” They were attending a wedding.
“Yes aunty,” Nkoli hurried after her to lock the gate.
I was combing my hair and hissing at how unagreeable it was. I have this sort of hair, mkpuru akamu, mummy calls it, short coarse strands that huddle close to each other as soon as they can, worse in the mornings after a bath. They frustrate me. Nkoli came back upstairs and passed by our room to hers. She was grumbling. She grumbled a lot when neither mummy nor daddy could hear. I heard her slam her door shut. I tossed my comb to the far corner of the table and lay on my bed to read my latest Marvel comic. Ekene sat on the floor playing Temple Run on mum’s old iPad.
“Ebuka, come first,” Nkoli called. I stood to go to her room after she had called a third time.
“Close my door nao. Do you want mosquito to enter?” she queried after I stood at the entrance looking surprised. Nkoli had only a small green towel that hung low on her breasts and barely covered her buttocks. I shut the door and looked away. I did not move from the door. I was embarrassed.
“Come and read this thing for me,” Nkoli sat on her bed and spread open a book. She patted the bed next to where she sat. I moved to her bed, not meeting her eyes. She handed me her copy of Drummer Boy as I sat down. I had only read a few lines when her towel dropped. I took a quick glance at her breasts and sucked in my stomach when she smiled. The knot in my throat tightened and I could read no further. When Nkoli stood to lock the door, her towel remained on the bed. I had never seen such nakedness in my whole life. My heart pounded.
When she came back to the bed, my eyes were closed. “No fear nah. You go like am,” she said. “This is what men do. You no be man? Look ehn you no be small boy o. She placed my hands on her breasts and began unbuttoning my shorts.
“Make I stop?”
I did not respond. My eyes were still closed.
“Don’t tell anybody o. You will like it.” She gently took off my shorts and my pant followed suit. When her hand began to massage my penis, I covered my face with both my hands. She giggled.
When I walked out of her room, it felt like I had been there for ten hours, when in reality, it had not been for more than thirty minutes.
As I got back to my room, Ekene shoved the iPad into my face, “Beat my highscore now,” he dared. A triumphant smile lit his face. All I wanted to do at that moment was sleep. I pushed my comic books aside and curled up on the bed. I had a troubled sleep.
The next time Nkoli called me into her room. I was not as shy. I didn’t close my eyes. I was pleased when at the end she said I was becoming a real man. She said I did good, but I had a lot more to learn. She made me cross my heart and promise not to let anyone in on our secret.
“Ekene,” I shouted his name from the sitting room downstairs. An episode of Power Rangers was about to start. He didn’t respond. I called him several other times and wondered what he was doing, why he didn’t at least, shout back a response. I had left him upstairs about an hour ago. He had his nose buried in Enid Blyton’s 12 Silver Cups. So I bounded up the staircase impatiently and threw the door of our room open. He wasn’t there, neither was the book he was reading.
“Ekene,” I shouted again, my voice a mixture of panic and wonder. Nkoli’s door opened, and Ekene walked out clutching his book, a slight stagger to his steps.
“Ekene,” I called out softly. He did not look at me, not even when I pulled his arm. He walked past me and hopped into his bed. He lay on his stomach and shut his eyes. Ekene was six years old.
I am ten years old.
Mummy came home from work earlier than she used to, just about the time our school bus dropped us off. She went into the bathroom and turned the tap on as she threw up into the sink.
I and Ekene stood by the door, “Sorry mummy,” we said. Nkoli stood behind us.
Mum forced a smile, “I’ll be fine,” she said, “I just need to rest. Nkoli, hope lunch is ready?”
As she climbed the stairs to her room, mummy asked that no one disturb her. As soon as we finished our homework, we were to stay in our rooms and could only come down to watch tv by six.
Later that evening, after Nkoli had served daddy his meal, I stayed with her in the kitchen doing the dishes. I shrieked when she tickled my sides as we made our way upstairs. I walked past my room to hers. She shut the door.
We didn’t hear anything, not the door open. Maybe it was the collective buzz of the neighbouring generators. The scream that proceeds out of mummy’s mouth startles I and Nkoli out of position. I am surprised the door is not locked. We never forget these things. How come we did today?
I do not know if the excuse will hold, that I am too young, that I am innocent, that I have been abused. But I know for sure that mummy’s cane will scald my back for the first time ever and I will scream. I will scream loud and hoarse after each stroke leaves my back. And in all of it, I will be a man, at least, I’ll try.
And Nkoli, I don’t know what about her, but there are some people you never forget for the rest of your life.