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Gradually as the days passed by, I began to talk less, even when I was spoken to, a word or two was all I could mumble. Uncle Habib insisted I was taken to a doctor. His wife had vehemently protested. “A waste of money” she’d said. “He was just a slowpoke”. And that was how it continued, less word, less food.
I would wake up, clean the house, mop the tiles, fetch water which was by the far the chore I hated most. My neck, shoulders, and back were suffering from the strain of carrying the heavy jerry-can over ten times each day.
Once when I’d collapsed at school, Aunty Larai said I was too lazy and slept a lot. But for every passing day, I got thinner and sadder, missing my parents excessively. Perhaps the only consolation for my present predicament was the twins. Despite how hard their mother tried to keep them away from me, they would always find a way to return. They both viewed me as a brother figure.
Gradually, I began to notice unique things about their abilities. While Hussain liked to find new words, attempt writing poems, Hassana preferred to solve puzzles and play games that involved numbers, she would draw whatever she’d seen in her textbooks. Spending time with them was always fun, that was when their mother allowed them.
Living in my small storeroom made me think about our semi palace of a house. My room had an adjoining bathroom. Abba had insisted I take the room because I was a man as he would say. I would think about Yahaya, our house help, and where he was now. I would think about my classmates and all my teachers at Elites Academy and even the sleeping Hannah.
To think that I was now the sleepy one in my new school. For days, I’d been experiencing a menacing ache in my head, maybe it was because I wasn’t eating. I couldn’t remember the last time I had my favourite meal, tuwon masara with vegetable soup, but Alas! Beggars had no choice.
“Sameer” it was like a knife was pierced through my heart anytime I heard her voice call my name, it was never for anything good. I quickly dropped Oliver Twist and ran to her. She was sitting in the living room alone, the kids were in their room.
“I’m here”. I said squatting down, the way she insisted I do anytime I was talking to her. Aunty Larai focused on the show playing on the TV completely ignoring me even though I knew she was fully aware I was there. I dare not say a word.
“Get me the white cup that has the green brand on it”. She spoke suddenly. I had been squatting for over twenty minutes. Uncle Habib wasn’t home, that was when her cruelty was at its peak. I knew exactly what cup she was referring to.
Last week, uncle Habib brought them in pairs, while doing the dishes, one of them slipped from my hands and broke into pieces. Not only did she give me a thorough beating, but she had thrown me on the broken pieces when I acquired a large gash on my right foot.
When Uncle Habib asked me about it, I lied. Something Abba would never have tolerated. Telling him the truth would result in another argument with his wife over me and I was scared he wouldn’t be there to protect me when she came for me again.
Without wasting time, I limped to the kitchen and immediately grabbed the white cup. There was a large black stain on the inside, I must have missed it while washing the dishes earlier in the morning. Did she want to punish me for that? I carefully dropped it back on the table and made it leave.
“Who said you could go?”
My heart squeezed tightly, and my legs began to shake. I forced them to turn back to the living room.
“It’s obvious that you’re mute now. But there’s no way on earth you could have been dumb to miss the stain on this cup”.
Still, I kept quiet, there was nothing I could say that would abate her anger. Only if Uncle Habib would walk in now.
“You can’t talk, you can’t wash the dishes then what good are you. Sameer looks at me, you might have fooled my husband, but listen there’s no way that act would get to me. You think I don’t know you’re bad luck right?”.
Her voice was rising it attracted the twin’s attention. They came to stand at the door watching their mother. Aunty Larai was wearing a red veil and right now her extremely fair face was turning red.
I wasn’t surprised she called me bad luck. I was more surprised she’d called my name. Badluck has been my name since I set foot in this house.
“Mummy stop shouting at Sameer, Dad says he’s our brother”. Hassana said quietly coming closer to seat on her mother’s lap.
“Quiet Hassana, and he’s not your brother”.
I felt bad that she shouted on Hassana because of me. The twins were so innocent that they didn’t deserve any part in this, in this sad tale of mine.
“Take this cup and rewash it immediately, and may God help you I find another stain on it.” I collected the cup carefully from her careful not to drop it. I took ample time to wash it carefully and put it back in the kitchen glass. My tired legs limped away to my room where I forced myself to find comfort in Oliver’s twist.
Things were looking good on the school front. I was starting to get acquainted with Hakeem, he was very smart but talked a lot. I usually didn’t mind talking too, but the words were still not forming. Was I turning dumb? Well, no. I still talked with the twins. Talking to them was easy, maybe because I felt safe and secure.
At the new school, we were supposed to act a little drama for Mr. Okoro’s class, he taught the English language and was a large contrast from Mrs. Martha Smith. I didn’t know why but since the day he’d waved at me outside the school gates, he’d been trying to get closer to me. The smile was still difficult for him no doubt, but he was so different.
“It’s a simple play that has only five to seven scenes, we need just one family. The play focuses on the importance of education.” He paused for a while and looked around the class. Our eyes met before I moved mine. He still got me scared.
“The class will be divided into groups, two groups. Each group is supposed to present a play that aligns with the topic, that is the importance of education. The best group will get to act the drama on graduation day”.
As he took us through the specifics of the drama, my attention wandered back to Elites Academy two years ago when we were taken to a cinema to watch a live drama performance; The gods are not to be blamed by Ola Rotimi. I was impressed and awesome by the wonderful performance of the campus students. Gracefully, they moved and displayed wonderful emotions, that it felt like I was reading the book all over again. It was a wonderful day I didn’t think of would forget.
“Sameer, Sameer”. I heard someone whisper fiercely in my direction. Turning I saw it was Hakeem standing beside Mr. Okoro, with the entire class looking at me. It was clear that I was attracted to much of the class’s attention.
“Come Sameer”. Hakeem called out again when he noticed I was stalling. I gingerly stood up and walked to stand beside him, Hakeem was quite tall for a nine-year-old boy.
I stood only about his shoulder tip. Why he called me out, I was still trying to figure out.
“Jamal, you too” Jamal, dark and short came out to stand beside me too.
“Grace, come out to”. She stood up lazily like her body was too heavy for her, even if she looked like she didn’t have an ounce of fat on her. Sluggard and slow, she walked to stand beside Jamal looking like she would fall on him.
And then it dawned on me, Hakeem was choosing participants for his drama group. Alarmed I tried to protest to Hakeem but I couldn’t say anything.
“Alright, that has been settled then”. Mr. Okoro’s loud voice came again.
“You have three weeks to complete your rehearsals and present it before the class, put in your best performance. And yes, Sameer please follow me”.
At the mention of my name, my heart did a black flip, why did Mr. Okoro want to see me? I waited till he packed his books and walked out, while I followed him outside carefully. He was wearing blue plain trousers with a white shirt, almost funny, he looked like those students that were friends with Abba.
Just before we stepped into the staffs’ office, Mr. Okoro stopped abruptly and turned towards him. His eyes held a look of sympathy.
“Sameer how are you doing?”
I mumbled “Fine”, but I couldn’t even hear my voice.
“I’m impressed by your performances Sameer, you’ve been doing great”.
I had no plans to answer this, so I kept quiet and continued to fiddle with my fingers.
My toes moving restlessly in my socks. I couldn’t wait to go back to class.
“I understand that you live with your uncle right?”. He came closer to me. Frankly, his height was intimidating, and I could never forget the way he moved menacingly towards me on my first day. I nodded slowly.
“That’s good. Well, I’m sorry about what happened the other day at class. I was just in a bad mode”.
I nodded again. He sighed before he continued. “You can go back to class now. I would like to be friends with you, okay? Take care of yourself”.
I didn’t wait to reply, I turned and ran to my class. Friends indeed.
Later in the night, I was trying to think of a storyline that would portray the topic. The harder I tried, the less I could think of something or anything. Nothing appealed to me and seemed suitable.
“Sameer”. Uncle Habib’s voice sprung me out of my reverie. I ran out to meet him. His face held a hopeful countenance like he was looking forward to saying whatever he had called me for.
“Sameer, I know you’ve been having a hard time in this house, with the chores and everything. Your aunty is just been…I don’t know, just been herself.
I want you to know that I’ve contacted an agency for house help.
I think it would be great to have someone help you around the house. What do you think?”.
For the first time in a long time, I heard the good news. What do I think? I was ecstatic. I almost couldn’t wait, someone to help around the house. At least the chores would lessen, and I could sleep a bit more, just a bit more.
The sun was hot on my back, as it seemed like it was piercing through my skins. Perspiration dripped from my back and rolled down my body. It would surprise you to know that I didn’t notice the sun or even the heat, I was used to it already.
My legs felt like they would give in and collapse any moment from now, somehow I knew it wouldn’t happen because I wasn’t a quitter. No, I’ve never quit and I never would. I trudged on ahead even when it seemed like, with every step I took, a mile more was added to my path.
The books were clutched tightly in my hand, they were my most prized possessions. The sole of my foot screamed with pain from the heat of the ground surface.
My feet weren’t bare, I was wearing an old shoe that has weathered this path for a long time and could no longer withstand the pressure of the sun. While others didn’t quit, others had no choice.
Listening to the chatters of the other girls made me wish I could socialize with them like a normal person, talk and laugh easily. We were all walking back from school in the hot afternoon sun, our white uniform that had turned to brown made us stand out among the passers-by.
Still, no one turned to look at us, the pupils of government girls secondary were already a popular sight in the village. As we walked in groups, I was a step back somewhere within, not part of any group.
Just a loner like I’d always been, or rather since my mother died. It was a situation I would never wish for anyone. The pain was still fresh and it hurt deeply, but no one seemed to understand not even my father. Thinking of bringing the hurtful anger I felt for him to the surface. Truly a man of valor was known in times of emergency.
My father, a man who had loved my mum so much that it almost drove him crazy when she died. So, it was surprising when just after eight months after my mother’s death, my father declared his intentions to get married. It was a piece of horrific news to hear. How could he think of getting married when I could still feel my mother’s presence around the house? Men were unfathomable.
The loud bleating of a herd of goats brought me back to my present self, our groups had reduced considerably as each girl would branch when it was time to take her turn. My home was up farther, and so I continued to walk quietly, the group thinned out gradually and I entered my house when it got to my turn. I was dismayed and slightly envious, none of the girls had noticed I was entering my home, none had said goodbye.
Like always, no one cared! I’d just moved from an uncomfortable situation to another one. Since my mother died and my dad remarried, my own house felt like an oven, like I was boiling inside from anger. It was a feeling I couldn’t find the right words to express. There was so much anger in me it was eating me up. Happiness and joy were now strangers, nothing I did gave me a sense of fulfillment or purpose.
Even after the principal announced that I had the best results last term, I wasn’t pleased. The large iron door creaked as I pushed it open, announcing my presence. The house was unusually exotic to be found in a village. It was not your typical muddy house.
This house had tiles that were mopped every day, paned window glasses, and a little adjoining clinic. Thanks to my father who was a medical doctor! After retiring from working all those years in the city, father decided to relocate to his village, to help the sick and ailing villagers in his little way.
It was at that time, my mother died after battling with breast cancer for over 16 years, the was since I was born. All of a sudden, I now have a stepmother.
“Larai, is that you?”
The voice I very much dreaded, that filled me with scorn and hate sounded from the living room. I ignored my stepmother’s call and walked right into my room without acknowledging her. I pulled off my uniforms in a hurry, I could no longer withstand the heat. Stepping into the cold shower was like nothing I’d imagined.
The cold water touched more than my skin, I could feel the relief seeping through my hair as I doused the hot shampoo, worked it to a lather, and scrubbed my hair thoroughly while evenly distributing the shampoo properly over my head; just like my mother had taught me.
Even while she was sick before she died, she was the best mother anyone could have wished for. Just thinking about her kindness and smiles caused my heart to ache, and my tears blended in with my bath. Once I got out of the shower, I was greeted with the face of the woman who took my mother’s place.
“Larai, how was school? I called you when you came in, seems you didn’t hear me”. She started, Talatu was a tall and beautiful woman, with a smile that never left her lips. She looked to be in her late thirties, so she was younger than my mother.
When I didn’t reply for a while, she tried again.
“Lunch is ready, come to the dining”.
Still silent, I continued to comb my hair by the mirror paying her no mind. I heard her sighed. Frankly, I would like her to just leave my room, I wasn’t ready to accept her olive branch. Talatu must have noticed I wasn’t ready to answer her and began to walk away.
“Larai, I feel we can understand ourselves only if you give me the chance. I want to be your friend.” Her voice was low and filled with emotion, almost on the verge of breaking. “I know you’re still hurt from losing your mother, but Larai you’re allowed to grieve. I can even walk through it with you if you’d allowed me. I’m sure your mum..”
“Don’t you dare mention my mother”. I screamed and threw the comb I was holding towards her. “You have no right to talk about my mother. Get out of my room”.
“Larai, please listen to me, I am..”
“I said get out!” I screamed one more time, tears rapidly blinding my eyes. “Get out. I wish you would die and never have to see you again.”
I couldn’t control the sobs that began to wreck my body. Talatu gave me one last look and quietly left the room. I held the towel in my hand as I laid on the bed and cried my eyes out. I missed my mum.
The tension that surrounded the dining table later was enough to suffocate one. I was at the dining table only because of my father’s insistence. I had no interest in the meal, and more than that I was tired. The weeping had drained me, leaving me with no energy.
On previous days, the dining table was a chatterbox, Talatu would always ensure that a conversation was ensuing, but it was different today. She was quiet and faced her meal, not for once did she give me as much as a glance. Good for her! Perhaps that would keep her off my back for a while. Father wasn’t oblivious of the tension in the room, he kept glancing from Talatu to me.
He must be deep in thoughts. Good for him! I didn’t make any efforts to eat, I was simply not interested. I felt victorious tonight, now that I have gotten their attention.
“Larai, are you okay? You’re not eating your food.” My dad inquired, placing his hand on my right hand strewn across the table. I was sitting directly opposite my step mum, with my father in our midst.
“I’m okay”. I muttered quietly, pulling my hand from his.
Dad sighed and dropped his spoon on the plate. I guess I wasn’t the only one losing interest in the macaroni heavily garnished with pieces of fish.
“What exactly is your problem Larai? What do you want me to do?” Dad’s voice was tired, it had been a long day for him at the clinic.
The yellow light powered by the generator reflected on his handsome face, and with a pointed nose that my mother had claimed made her fall in love with him.
“What are you talking about?” My bitter voice slightly rose. Through all this, Talatu kept eating without batting an eyelid.
“Don’t talk to me that way. Why do you have to be disrespectful to your stepmother? She’s my wife and you should respect her for that, if not for anything.”
Pure hurt and anger rose from the depths of my heart. Your wife? What about my mother? I ignored him and picked at my food.
“Larai”. My dad called out again. This time his voice held a tone of amazement. Perhaps he was thinking, was this, my daughter? The thought made me smile.
“Farhan it’s okay, just let it be”. Talatu spoke up for the first time since dinner started.
“No, it’s not okay”. Dad was now in a rage. “It’s not okay at all. Why does she hate you that much? Did you commit a crime by marrying me? Listen Larai, if you can’t tell me what’s going on, then you’d better start to respect your mother, yes she’s your mother”.
I looked at my father stunned. Was he serious? He thought it was okay marrying someone else just eight months after your wife had died. I made to stand up.
“Young lady sit down. Dinner is not over”. His tone completely changed, this was the stubborn Fulani man I knew.
“No, I’m going to my room”. I stood up and left. Dad got up and watched me as I left.
“Farhan, it’s okay. Please stop all these. It’s not easy for her after losing her mother”.
I heard his wife saying. I didn’t mind though, she was leaving this house.