Your hands trembled as you swung the wooden window closer to you to keep the sharp whistling wind and cold droplets of rain outside. You latched it firmly to the hook and lit up the kerosene lamp. Your hands still trembled as you struck the match. They always did whenever it rained. It was something you had inherited from your father and one of the things that kept the memory of him close to you.
You took out the metal buckets from the cold, damp bathroom and kept them underneath the leaky parts of the aged asbestos roof. You calculated the amount it would take to get the roof fixed and your stomach tightened. You would have to find extra work to save money for it.
The flickering lamp nearly went off as you carried it to your mother’s bedroom where she sat at the edge of the bed, staring into space. Her hair—which you cut short the previous week—was already growing like a weed. It was the only trait you inherited from her: long thick brown hair that went wild when water touched it.
The room was clean. You made sure of it. Her clothes were neatly folded in an old trunk that smelled like camphor. The trunk had been gifted to her during her wedding. Her fine ceramics and chinaware were stored in a worn out cupboard facing the line where you hung her church scarves. Probably never to be used again.
The mirror hanging from a nail on the wall revealed the large birthmark on the left side of her face. She did not stir as you entered the room. You dropped the lamp on the cold floor and sat beside it with one leg crossed over the other. You picked up her Bible with the large prints from under the bed and began to read a passage from the Book of Matthew. When you were done you looked up at her and it all came back. When your father passed away she had been strong. She had fought for you and your younger brother Timothy. Even when relatives advised her that you stop school because you were a girl to allow Timothy finish secondary school, she protested and worked even harder to make sure you stayed in school. She had been a strong woman you admired deeply. Then when Timothy died from food poisoning, her spirit broke. It broke into a million tiny pieces.
She retreated into the solace of her mind and remained there not wanting to come out. Some days she would have her lucid moments and you would be overjoyed. But that joy never lasted. It never did.
Someone had shouted at you from a bus as you tried to get him to buy your ‘sweet fresh corn’ you stole from a farm, that you should go back to school and stop disturbing him.
You felt as if a bucket of ice water had been poured on you. How do you explain to this man that even though you were barely 16 you had gone through so much more hell in this life than most people? How do you explain your mother’s illness? How do you explain poverty?
That evening as you walked home with the soup ingredients you bought with the little money you earned, you met Igho on the way. He was your only friend, an apprentice to a tailor who had his shop on your street. He too, was from a home where he had to support himself. His father was a drunk and his mother had run away with another man. He took the bag from you and you sighed in relief. You were in pain from carrying cement mix from one point to another for hours.
“Your mama dey OK?”
“You dey OK?”
“I dey manage.”
Igho was not one to talk too much and you appreciated him for it. His presence alone was comfort enough.
“Make I escort you reach house.”
“Wetin you learn for apprentice today?”
He hissed. “Abeg that man no know how to do things well. E be like say I go find another tailor.”
Igho followed you home and decided to stay to help you cook. He knew his way around the kitchen, which did not surprise you. As he helped you with the eba your mother emerged from her bedroom. At first she looked around the small kitchen like she saw no one—then her eyes rested on Igho.
“Timothy,” she said, smiling. “You’ve grown so tall. My baby is now a big boy.”
Your eyes began to water as you watched Timothy stare at your mother incredulously. His eyes softened and he let out a chuckle.
“Mummy don’t you know that all the food you’ve been feeding me will make me big?” you heard Igho reply. For what appears to be the first time, he did not speak pidgin.
“Go to the sitting room and I’ll bring you your food.”
Your eyes flooded. You kept using the back of your hands to wipe the wet away.
“Ok my son. Elizabeth help your brother.”
You were going to say thank you but the words got stuck in your throat. They only came out as grunts and whimpers. But Igho understood and nodded. He helped you take the soup and eba into the sitting room. You and Igho sat on the ground while your mother remained on the chair.
“Igho how is school?”
And so began the long list of made up stories Igho told your mother to keep her happy. For a moment as they talked it felt like you had your family back again. You even heard your mother’s laughter. Something you thought you would never hear again. And even when she retreated back into her mind you did not feel so bad. You held on to that memory, never to let it go.