From The Story Issue
I frowned in the car beside Mommy, remembering I was happy with the party only after Uncle Max gave me that Five Hundred Naira note. Not when I was allowed to run my hands across the sides of the shiny cars parked outside; not when I smelt the party-cake smell of the big parlour upstairs.
“Buy something decadent with it, my dear,” he had said. Decadent means things rich people buy because they don’t need them. That’s what Uncle asked me to buy, something decadent.
And now Mommy had spoilt everything, spoiled the surprise. We had stood in a corner, I between Mommy’s legs. This was my best position now that she always wore black, big black skirts that hid me inside folds of fluttering clouds, and I watched the uncles and aunties chatting and dancing to grownup music. I watched Mommy’s face as she mouthed a hello here and nodded her head there. I stuck out my tongue at some of the aunties who I caught pointing at Mommy and shaking their heads when she wasn’t looking. I got confused when they smiled back. Didn’t they know that the worst insult in the world was a stuck-out tongue? I had given up and was sucking my thumb; I did not notice Uncle Max until he put his hand on my head and shook my braids, not too hard, just enough to make me frown.
“Cute frown,” he said. “You should have brought the others, Sylvia.”
“They are with his mother,” Mommy replied.
“Even the baby?” Uncle Max stopped speaking and glanced down at me. He turned back to Mommy and continued, “Never mind that, how are you holding up?”
“Maxwell, I’m managing o.” Mommy had smiled then. I liked it when she smiled.
I liked Uncle Max too, some of the time. At other times I thought he stared too long at Mommy. I thought his eyes seemed like this wicked boy in Primary 3-E, Timothy, who always wanted other people’s sweets and chewing gum and chocolate.
We were in the 505. Mommy’s car smelled of Tiyan’s vomit and Eniye’s spit. At times, it still smelled of Michael the driver. Michael, whose smell used to spoil even Daddy’s big car. Now that was a motor car. I missed it.
Mommy drove into the petrol station. Maybe Uncle Max had given her some money too. Maybe he had told her sorry Daddy’s journey was taking too long. I looked at her; she no longer wore lipstick. I wanted to tell her sorry too. I wanted to tell her that it was good Daddy took so long to get back; that I did not like it when they fought. And then she spoiled everything.
“Osaze, where is that money I saw Uncle give you?”
“Which money, Mommy?”
“Don’t talk with your thumb in your mouth, dear.”
A very impatient man behind us started horning. The woman selling the petrol came to Mommy’s window and knocked.
“But Mommy I want to use it.”
Mommy turned back from the woman. After she pulled my left thumb from between my lips, she said, “Kai, this girl. What could you use Five Hundred Naira for?”
When I started speaking I saw that she’d stopped frowning; she smiled. “I want to gather all the money and keep it in my Bournvita tin, and when the money is very very plenty, I will use it to buy you a big BMW so that you will stop crying at night.”
Mommy laughed. And laughed.
Photo: Kostya Kartavenka