Photograph by Ladan Osman
When Ivie Idemudia begins to sneak into the boys’ room at age twelve to watch DVDs with naked women on the covers, she does it sloppily, sometimes forgetting to lock the door, sometimes forgetting the disc in the player, sometimes placing the discs in the wrong casing, or in no casing at all. It is no problem however, the boys never really know where they leave what in the first place. So she falls easily into a habit: come back from school by 2:30 pm, have lunch, be in the boys’ room by 3:00. By 4:00 pm, sometimes later, she is back in her room which is still empty as her two other roommates—Sister Iguehi who talks too much and Sister Hope, the one with tribal marks the size of rice grains—are not back from after-school lessons. The boys usually start returning in slow trickles by then, from soccer, from friends’ houses, from wherever else boys go. The oldest has a job with Silverbird so he doesn’t come home before 6:00 pm.
By the time she is thirteen, she has a boyfriend, fifteen-year-old Igbanam from SS2, with the side gap-tooth and a temperament that matches hers in the way water quenches fire. During lunch breaks, they kiss in the girls’ bathroom.
When she is in SS2 and he in SS3, they get into a fight.
“What do you mean you don’t think it will be a good idea for us to have sex?” She slams shut the encyclopaedia she had been inattentively flipping through, dislodging two or three post-its with the force of her temper.
“I just don’t think it will,” he whispers urgently, darting a quick, sideways glance at the door, his younger sister is at home and she has a way of hearing things. “My father says I’m going to Nottingham Trent.”
“So we cannot continue seeing each other Ivvy, the distance won’t work. You know this hurts me too… you know.”
“When did you plan to say something?”
“I just did!”
“Because I brought up sex!”
The next day in school, Ivie walks past him like she has not seen him, and the next day, and the next till his invisibility becomes as normal as her cutting math classes—like him, they are of no use. Igbanam becomes the first of many she walks away from without a reluctance in her heart, before the emptiness of loneliness becomes a weight in her chest, forcing her to consider the clichéd possibility of having Daddy Issues, before she begins to ransack the internet for suitable psychologists.
Before she became Mrs. Idemudia, she was Elomese, then she was Los. She got into the university at a time when English names were the in thing and as she couldn’t just give herself one, she improvised. Los was a small town Ishan girl with tiny breasts, and collar bones that could hold water. Final year student of optometry who always had to force down her guilt whenever she told a patient that healing was a science and not an awesome wonder of God (for God had healed her of chicken pox at age three and a stammer at age four—her mother said so). Whatever Los lacked in size—she was 5 feet 3 inches in height and looked like a tall, pre-pubescent girl, a slight bowness to her legs—she more than made up for in her knowledge of gold which was scholarly.
This is how Elomese meets Osawaru: her roommate’s brother needs to buy an engagement ring. After eight years of courtship (within which he had got two women pregnant—a boy and a girl), said brother is finally ready to settle down with his one true love, done with sowing his wild oats and all. He would come by their apartment (which is really just a bedroom as they share a bathroom with another room and a kitchen with the entire floor) and Los would take him to her guy. Los agrees and they set the following Saturday by 11:00 a.m. to meet.
Saturday comes and here is Los, in distressed grey jeans and an oversized T-shirt (you have to present yourself in a certain gangsteresque manner to keep the agberos at Oba market from trying to touch your ass or thinking they can cheat you), to meet a shiny Tundra outside. The car stretches, filling the untarred road with a certain amount of audacity, like an owner. She doesn’t know shit about cars but this looks like money—a lot of it. She wonders about her roommate, Siki, why Siki needs a roommate in the first place, why Siki always borrows money from her—from everyone really—and never ever pays.
“How far?” she asks, walking to the passenger side and realizing it has already been occupied by a big man that looks like he has folded himself into his seat.
“I dey… sorry I’m late, I had to pick up my friend,” the brother says from behind the wheel, not bothering to make introductions.
Ivie settles into the back seat, the car feels like money. She makes a mental note to double her fee.
The ring search turns out to be a proper test of Los’ patience, as the brother has an enormous capacity to be indecisive and the friend just cannot believe the prices these are going for. In the end, a rose gold ring studded with diamonds is chosen and the brother throws in a necklace for his sister, which Los keeps in her custody until Siki pays back the fifteen thousand naira she owes.
Four days after, she gets a call from someone who introduces himself as Osawaru, the one that… ehhh… went with you guys to buy a ring on Saturday.
Osawaru Idemudia; the one with the awkwardness around women, an ever so slight w when he pronounces his Rs so that despite his size (for he has a frame that stretches every inch of his 6 feet 5 inches), there remains a vulnerable appeal to him, like how a bear with cute puppy eyes equals a teddy—the reason for a good number of fights back in secondary school, the reason Elomese says yes when he surprises even himself by asking her out on a date over this first phone call. She has always been the say-yes-the-fourth-time type of girl.
By the following week, they are on their first date, Los making plans to put on her highest heels for their next date so that she wouldn’t have to stretch too far when she kisses him for the first time.
By the end of the year, they are married.
Besides his imposing nose, the other thing the man shared with his daughter was a religious devotion to mathematics which he pursued till he became the youngest ever professor in the faculty of Physical Sciences, University of Benin. Osawaru might have had a life swelling with excitement, might have had an astounding sports career, might have made a star basket baller, women pushing the limits of extreme to find their way to his bed. All he had to do was sign a contract. But what room does basketball leave for mathematics? And for Osawaru, mathematics was a religion.
So when Ivie brought home her JSS 1 first term report card, her father didn’t see the 50 she scored in English language, or the teacher’s comment that Ivie is a sweet child but really needs to work on her temper, all he saw was the 100 she scored in mathematics. All she saw was the pride that leapt out of his eyes, not the disapproval from her mother’s as she read aloud the teacher’s comment. They both didn’t pay attention to Los’ there-is-no-intelligence-without-character speech either.
It soon became a father and daughter thing; she would walk to the school parking lot looking for their grey Peugeot 307, her father leaning against it with his hands in his pockets. The moment he saw her, his nose would tilt—in the way it did whenever he smiled—and wave, “and how did she do this time?”
“100!” she would say, waving her sheet and rushing to him.
“The professor’s girl does it again.”
She would giggle and get in the passenger’s seat, fastening her seat belt with a robotic deliberateness—these things she did to prove that she was not a child anymore—and they would be off to Kada to get peppered gizzard.
It also became a thing for Mrs. Idemudia, this passive aggression that came with the end of term, with knowing that this was the one area where she was the minority. Ivie never scored higher than her record 58 in English language and never had a teacher’s comment that did not involve her temper, which was not improving. But as far as the father and daughter were concerned, the 100 in math was enough.
So she would complain instead that Ivie has had too much to eat or Ivie has stayed up for too long, let her go and sleep.
Ivie graduated from JSS 3 on a Friday morning in November. Her report sheet was handed to her by her form teacher, Mrs. Oyeyemi who had bovine eyes that forever held disapproval. This time however, she walked to the parking lot to be greeted by Aunty Omosede, her mother’s elder sister (who had entered and left three marriages, and had instead devoted her time to being the head of the Oba Market Lace Sellers’ Association, something she was actually excellent at).
Aunty Omosede looked uncomfortable, like she didn’t know how to proceed, so did the driver, Mr. Sali. Ivie didn’t blame them; the end of term pick up had always been a Father-Daughter thing. And since when did Aunty Omosede find time from her lace boutique to pick her from school anyway?
“How was your result, dear?” Aunty Omosede asked, eyes trained on Ivie’s badge.
“I came first in math.”
“Oh, that’s very good, my dear.”
The following silence settled heavily between them, holding Ivie in one hand, Aunty Omosede in the other. It was uninterrupted by the man tapping the car window, showing off wares that ranged from biscuits to torch lights or the raring honks when they passed through traffic. It followed them all the way to her gate at Osasogie Crescent, where it was forcibly quenched by the rude sounds of grief.
Grief was her mother in the center, a quivering mess, wig on display in the sand, legs here and there, no modesty. Grief was the mix and match of faces—neighbours, gatekeepers, shop owners, passersby—of sound, of smell. Ivie felt vomit in her throat.
What does one call this thing that swells in your chest as you stand, result statement in hand, in your blue pinafore, as a stranger with the ugliest tribal marks tells you your father died in a car accident? How pure is the dislike you immediately feel as you stare at this man, his dust layered feet, toe hairs sticking out like weeds from a desert, his stammer borne from a laborious attempt at speaking English, this man that has come to ruin your day and more?
Time is not as constant as sixty seconds make a minute. It speeds up, like when Los is with Osawaru comparing childhood stories over fried rice that has been warmed too many times. It slows down, like in Church, when the pastor manages to spread a single verse of the Bible over three hours. How much can possibly be said about death and men that leave their families behind to ask awkward questions? Like why does there seem to be an unusual depth to these looks of sympathy? Who is the woman with the boys that look too familiar? Was he lying to me about all those work trips? How could I be so fucking blind?
Elomese sits in the bench staring across from her at the woman in the white buba and wrapper, an identical boy on either side. She stares as the woman dabs her eyes at the corners with a white handkerchief folded in a perfect square. Elomese can bet that if she took a rule to it, the length would equal the breadth, she looks like that kind of woman. While Elomese’s grief is a sad thing to look at—an oily faced woman in a black kaftan, trying to contain a child whose cries degenerate into hiccups and asthma attacks in no particular order—the woman carries hers with dignity. Intense brown eyes lit up with wetness, eyes that look at her from time to time with a sisterly compassion, eyes that sit at the end of a gloriously prominent forehead illuminated by the chandelier that hangs above her head, washing her aglow in yellow light. The kind of woman you’d go out of your way to sympathize with.
Seated with the woman is Mama Osawaru, who is now trying to force the shoes back on the feet of the more restless one of the boys, struggling to make as little noise as possible. Elomese’s eyes find Mama Osawaru, the same moment her mother-in-law looks up at her and in that brief meeting of eyes, there is almost remorse. Almost. For Mama Osawaru immediately returns to the boy she is attending to. What apologies should one have for misfortune proving one right?
Something you should know about Mama Osawaru is that she does not take names lightly. She takes them as seriously as the balance she strikes between Jesus and Ogun and whichever way you decide to look at it, they too take names very seriously.
Mama Osawaru’s name is Imiefan. At sixteen, bracing the hot Friday afternoon in her heavy velvet wrapper, neck stiffened to gracefulness with red beads, she wedded gangly and oil-nosed Agbontaen Idemudia, the only son of his father. Imiefan might have been just a teenager then, but she knew then as clearly as she knows now that one is brought to this life to carry out duties, to take on responsibilities. At seventeen she had a boy, Osawaru, what God wants you to do. Then her womb fell asleep, but with a son already born, there were no complaints, not many.
When Osawaru presented Elomese to her as his choice for a wife, she warned him. Those lean hips were not of a woman that could carry sons. As he had done for the many years of his life since his father left them to an illness that had too many names, he disobeyed. Eight years went by and all her son had to show was a girl with a boy’s temper. Who would marry her? There was worry in Mama Osawaru’s chest but her granddaughter was not at the centre of it, not nearly. You see, it was a situation, for her husband had no brothers and her son had none either. The Idemudia name was being threatened with extinction by the semi fertile womb of the boy’s wife and he seemed to be fine with it. My daughter is all the son I need. Too much book in the head.
Mama Osawaru took names and responsibilities seriously so it was with a surgical deliberation—preparation, timing, precision—that she sought out Princess. Beautiful Princess with the right quantity of hips. Princess who needed just three meetings with her son to bring a smile out of him and four more to fill her belly. Princess who, just like her, understood that one is brought to this life to carry out duties, to take on responsibilities. Princess who carried those nine months bravely, despite her son’s tantrums. I can’t believe the two of you, you set me up! Princess who gave her two when all she needed was one.
Now that her son is dead, she wonders if there is a family curse—father and son not making it past fifty and all. She’ll worry about that later, she has time. But for now, she knows that if she hadn’t gotten her son to plant his seed on fertile ground, the Idemudia name would have ended with him. What apologies should one have for misfortune proving one right?
There is a house in Uwasota that has been the subject of many court cases, the issue of inheritance—from father to daughter, daughter to son and finally, at least for now, son to wife. It has three bedrooms and a kitchen that can discourage any hunger. During the rainy season, one may get electrocuted by the hot water tap. The house is green and has a compound reduced in size by the mango tree that should be fruiting by now but just grows bigger and bigger, providing shade and mosquitoes. This is Aunty Omosede’s house, where she lives surrounded by people Ivie only knows as Brother-this or Sister-that.
Ivie first came here with her parents when she was eight for Brother Osagie’s sixteenth birthday. She sat in the girls’ room with her slice of cake that might have contained too much rum and looked around—at the clothes that spilled out of the termite-eaten wardrobe, at the blue carpet with burn marks here and there around a faded centre, at the mattress that was propped up against the wall for the third girl, Sister Deba, who had come from the village to find work. Ivie looked around in the way we tend to look at things we perceive as other people’s suffering, with pity mixed with gratitude. Thank God it’s not us.
Now, Ivie is the third girl, propping her mattress against the wall every morning, bringing it down at night, making every effort to disbelieve the ridiculous things the girls say about her father, how they said he didn’t write a will so custom had to prevail, about his mistress, how she had to be the most beautiful woman in Edo State. She would have to go to the boys’ room, to escape their pity-mixed-with-gratitude looks—and to watch their DVDs.
The girls did not speak of her mother.
And the mother in question? That one just stays silent. What is there to say when one loses her husband and everything else follows? How else does one reply an Uncle who tells you that inheritances go to sons? What response do you give your sister when she looks at you, disappointment in her eyes as she asks so you weren’t monitoring the accounts?