It is night time where I live. Darkness seems to fall faster in the slums than it does in the neighborhoods of the wealthy. I didn’t know this until Akan invited me to sleep over at his house.
Mama said no at first when I told her about the invitation. I wasn’t expecting anything else from the woman I called mother but then Akan’s mother called her on the phone and changed my mother’s mind with her reassuring laugh and the rich timbres of her foreign accent.
‘I want you to behave yourself at Akan’s house. Do exactly as you are told and don’t stare. We might not have much but we have enough. Don’t go there and be behaving like you aren’t contented with what you have,’ My mother said as she packed my school bag with things I did not need. I knew the things she said were more for her benefit than mine. Ever since Papa left, she talked more to herself than usual.
At Akan’s house, it is always day time. He lives in an estate where the communal generator is only turned off for maintenance. The estate no longer depends on the erratic power supply provided by the state. That very first night I slept over, I kept waiting for the lights to go off like it would have back home but it never did and in the end, I had to beg Akan to let me sleep in another room with lights turned off.
Akan is only a year younger than I am but still afraid of monsters underneath his bed so he sleeps with the light on to frighten them away. He wets his bed too but his mother calls it the pains of growing up. My mother would have shown me another kind of pain if I ever wet the bed but Mrs Ekanem is a different kind of mother altogether.
Akan is my best friend even though we only met two months ago. I am a scholarship student at the Lagos Academy for Gifted Children. I do not fit in there but Mama says to count myself lucky to be going to school with the children of the rich. My fees and books are paid for by someone’s charity. My shoes and uniform are however my mother’s responsibility and therefore of poorer quality than the other boys at school wear. We are at an age where such things matter. They can tell I am not one of them from my rubber sandals and so before Akan walked into my class one humid morning, I had no friends.
Akan’s mother says I am good for him and it makes me feel like the medicine Mama gives me at the beginning of every year to prevent malaria. Akan is good for me too. Before he showed up, life was routine and bereft of the friendship every twelve year old boy needs.
Mrs Ekanem, Akan’s mother insists that I call her Auntie Iquo. Like Akan, she is like no one I know. She wears red lipstick at home and Akan tells me that she smokes 3 to 5 cigarettes daily. It used to be a whole pack but she became worried about cancer a few months ago and is now trying to quit after one of her friends in Chicago was diagnosed of lung cancer. The first time we exchanged stories of our families, Akan told me that after 15 years of staying married to his father, his mother woke up one morning, went to her lawyer in downtown Chicago and filed for a divorce. A month later, she got full custody of Akan and they moved to Lagos, a place he had only heard about in passing.
Mrs Ekanem has a different version of the events that led them here. She told me over breakfast that weekend that everything she had ever done, she did for Akan, including leaving the man he adored more than life itself and the city that was all the home he had ever known. She told me how his father was a terrible man with no morals, a stain on humanity that would have ultimately corrupted his son.
“I have saved Akan from becoming just like him. And one day he will thank me for it.”
I wanted to ask what made Mr Ekanem so terrible but I was afraid the answer would help me understand why Papa left I and Mama. I never want to understand that. I never want to forgive it either.
Akan had responded to his mother’s self justification by slurping on his hot tea and excusing himself from the table. The Bears were playing and he didn’t want to miss the game, he said. Mrs Ekanem waited for him to be out of earshot before whispering confidingly to me about how things were better since Akan found me. I could not look her in the face when she said that. I was afraid that I would see the man who walked away from my mother and I hovering in the outline of her face. I was afraid I would hate her too.
I can hear my mother puttering around in our small kitchen now. Akan’s driver dropped me off at home just an hour ago. I wonder what Akan and his mother are doing now. Probably waiting for Eronse, the cook to set the table and invite them to dinner. There is no dining table in the home I share with my mother. We have a reading table and sometimes I eat my meals there so I can work on my school assignments at the same time. Mama says it is a bad habit but there is a rare glint in her eye when I indulge in this habit and I can feel the pride in her heart reaching out to hold me while her arms remain at her sides.
I wonder what my father answers people when they ask why he left us. Does he tell them how terrible my mother was like Mrs Ekanem does of Akan’s father? Does my father describe to people, the way my mother’s sagging breasts no longer gave him succor and so he chose to seek it in the pointy breasts of the woman our neighbors tell us he is with now? Does he tell them how she nagged about his gambling habit and pawned her jewelry to pay off the debtors that hung their threats over our heads? Or does he tell them it had nothing to do with my mother and everything to do with him and the fact that people like him and Akan’s mother are wanderers, birds that migrate once the season of warmth and love is ended?
Mama used to hug me all the time while Papa was here. When he left, the hugs stopped. I only have to look in the mirror to know why. I am the carbon copy of my father.
I have often wondered what would happen if I reached out to hug her. I am beginning to forget what my father looked like. It is not so bad and I do not cry as much as I did when he first left. I miss him but I miss my mother even more. When I cry now, it is for her and the sadness that hugs her day and night and makes her forget there is a boy that needs her to hold him.
‘Ugo! Ugo!’ my mother calls out to me from the darkness that is slowly gathering around us.
“Maaaa!’ I answer.
‘Have you finished unpacking? If you have, please light the lantern and come hold it up for me so I can finish cooking.’
I am reminded there is no Eronse to place meal after meal before me, no estate generator to disperse the night that has surrounded me and my mother
We are having dinner when she finally asks the questions I know has been on the tip of her tongue since Akan’s driver delivered me home.
‘So what was their house like? Did you like it? And Akan’s mother? What is she like? Do you like her?’
‘It was very nice. The house is big and beautiful and Akan’s mother said to greet you.’ I say to my mother, making sure I have swallowed what I was eating first because she doesn’t like it when I chew and talk at the same time.
She nods her head as if she expects nothing less of Akan and his mother.
‘Thank you for letting me go Mama.’ I say to her after a while.
She doesn’t answer and I know that if we were in Akan’s house, a place where there was no darkness, I could reach out and catch the lone tear that is running down her cheek and it wouldn’t be strange at all.
I clear the plates from the floor where we have huddled to eat our dinner. I am almost done with washing up when the light comes back on. I hear my mother say ‘Up Nepa’ and I smile. It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the place where I call home. It looks exactly the same way it looked two days ago when I turned tail and deserted it.
I want to tell my mother how much I missed her by telling her that I didn’t sleep well at Akan’s but that would be a lie. In Akan’s house, I had slept like a baby. I slept and the heat didn’t wake me up. I dreamed dreams that were undisturbed by quarrelsome next door neighbors. I slept and didn’t wake up until the sun walked into the room and tickled me with its light. I slept and forgot all about my mother and our little home in the slums of Jakande Estate. When I finally woke up, it was from a dream I wanted to be true, a dream where Akan was my brother and his mother, my mother and in which I knew no one called ‘Mama’.
I clean my hands on the faded red kitchen napkin and find my mother. She is wearing her glasses and frowning at a 29 inch TV that is almost as old as I am. I sit as close to her as I can and watch with her for a little while and then when I am brave enough, I reach out to hug my mother as I had seen Akan hug his own mother. I can feel the surprise running down her spine but when I do not let go, she finds the strength to return the favor and put her arms around me.
‘I love you,’ I say to my mother, just like I had heard my friend say to his mother as he helped her up the stairs that first night I stayed over. Mrs Ekanem had finished off a bottle of wine all by herself and needed help getting to bed. I had been unable to stop myself from watching as my friend tucked his mother into bed.
‘We take turns at it, you know.’ He later said to me as he handed me bed clothes.
I didn’t need to ask him what ‘it’ was; I knew very well. Like Akan, my mother was all I had. Unlike Akan, I had no idea how to be a hero for my hero, how to love the one who had taught me to love, how to be more for the one who was enough for me.
Until this weekend.
My mother holds me a little tighter as the words leave my mouth and even though it hurts; I let her hold on for as long as she wants to. It is my turn to be her hero as she has always been mine.
Song of the day: Sam Smith – Stay With Me