…another option is Yuan Lee. Last term, everyone at school kept saying he was my
boyfriend because we were always together during break last term, but he’s not really. He
can seem sexy if I try. His Chinese father came over to teach our farmers how to grow
paddy rice. Then he stayed and his wife eventually came over and they stayed some
more. When our government got tired of Mao style paddy farms, his parents started a
restaurant called Green Bamboo where they cook a lot of white rice.
Last year, he asked my friend Remi and I over to his parents’ restaurant as my birthday
treat and he made sure we got a whole platterful of freshly fried springrolls which are my
favourite. I watched his lips form the words, “Good springrolls need the pastry rolled so thin you can see through it. The filling has to
be cold so it doesn’t stretch the pastry and make it tear.”
Maybe it was then that he started to creep into my consciousness as a Possible. Remi
protested that those instructions were not clear enough:
“They never turn out right, even if I leave the stuff in the fridge overnight.”
He laughed, eyes bending up at the corners, his floppy black hair brushing his eyebrows,
“To cook, the oil has to be really, really hot so it singes brown almost as soon as it
reaches the pan.”
I think he’d be gentle. When we were at the beach after Tunji’s party, Yuan and I were
leaning against his car as we waited for the others. It was quite dark as the moon was not
up yet and the stars pinpricked the sky’s velvet. There was a bit of a breeze off the sea
and when I said I was cold he took his sweat top off and put it around me in my strappy
dress. He tucked me in under his shoulder and it felt kind of cozy.
I don’t want to try to wait for this falling in love business, or aim for passion, even
though it sounds attractive enough in Mills and Boons romances. I want to get this sex
thing over and done with so my life can move on. Among the girls I know, some have
already done it. Amina and Mahmoud did it behind the school kitchens when we were
still in the third form. She needed to go to the nurse for a spare uniform as stuff had
leaked onto her skirt. I remember that after school, she walked funny all the way to the
bus stop. Now, when Amina talks about boys and men, she seems to be having a great
time. She says sex can be mysterious or straightforward, either a fantastic experience or
as simple as what dogs do. Her cheeks climb up her face, her deep dimples show as she
talks. It seems as if she’s defying life itself, as if the choice has been hers all along. She’s
able to brush off what my mother, and probably hers, might think. She’s started to claim
life in her own way.
Moira, on the other hand, says she’s going to wait for the right one; she won’t do it until
she’s sure. She has a crush on Idris, who bounces on and off my list. When we’ve talked
about him, she does that “oooh, he’s so cute” thing. I can see that Idris obviously has the
experience. And everyone seems to like him. Girls like Moira giggle and the Amina types
look him up and down. The shape of his back, his shoulders in his white school shirt as
he walks away down a corridor catches my eye. I tend to keep very still inside, not
wanting to let any smoochy type of longing jump free. Sometimes I ache to be noticed by
him, wanted and pursued. Yet at other times, I feel like I’d just be another pair of
knickers in his drawer, taken simply because I was there.
And the largest mango in my pile? The biggest bonga on my stall? My best friend’s
father, Frederick Adams, forty two years old with a pot-bellied future, a short full beard,
hair closely trimmed to his head and fingers which can make the skin sing. Nothing much
has happened yet, of course. Just one leaning-over-to-open-the car-door touch. Just one
let-me-introduce-this-youngster-to-Motown dance.“I bet you youngsters don’t know about this kind of music. Want to dance?” he’d said.
But he hadn’t stuck to the usual uncle-y arms length version of dancing. He’s on the list
because I think he might teach me quickly. This is so obviously one of the things that will
have to remain secret, be doubly hidden and buried from my mother (and Remi), with me
having to pinch my words. But just the once with him might be enough.
It’s almost as if I can see a list of names in my head, with mini head shots alongside, each
taken in a studio with a full glare of lights, so that as I peer into each photo, I can see the
pimple above Reuben’s eyebrow, notice that Yuan’s eyes are set slightly too close
together, linger over the pout in Idris’ lips, observe the sheen on Frederick Adams’ face. I
can choose whether to put a tick, a question mark or an X against each name on my list.
It’s in my power. It’s up to me.
My mother knocks on the door and enters with my birthday greeting and a promise of an
akara breakfast. As I sit up, part of the sheet covering my body slips to show half a boob
and an entire nipple. Upstanding and free, I know the nipple looks like the eraser end of a
wood wrapped pencil when tickled by air. My mother’s smile freezes into a half-frown.
Displays of flesh in teenage females, especially her own daughters, are always a worrying
sign, regardless of whether I am safe in a bed at home or not. “Cover yourself up” has
greeted every excess shoulder, leg or chest exposure. “You can’t go around looking like a
chagga.” A slutty whore. Today, her look does the job. As I pull up the sheet to cover
myself, the smile returns. My mother firmly believes in cloaking one’s body’s treasures.
On a day like today, who am I to tell her otherwise?
As my mother closes the door, a memory slips in to sit alongside me and remind me of
when her Good Behaviour Snippets began in earnest. It must have been when she was
suddenly shocked into blood reality that I had left my childhood behind. I hadn’t been all
that shocked with my sudden thrust into womanhood, just plain disgusted by all that
I remember rifling through my mother’s drawers in her room one day when she and
Aunty Minny were having one of their deep talks. There are often useful things in my
mother’s cupboards – lost earrings, eye liner, and hair combs. I used to take everything
out and pick my way through. When I opened her jewellery box, I’d find a mass of
different coloured crepe papers – deep purples, peacock blues, golden yellows, and bright
green – wrapping up an assortment of necklaces, brooches and earrings. I’d take out her
heavy yellow stranded necklaces which she let me try on in front of her dressing table
That morning I found a cardboard tube with some cotton wool packed tight down one
end, a smaller piece of tube stuck in the other, and a string dangling out. The cotton felt
smooth and rounded at the top, and when I examined it closely the smaller tube just
pulled apart from the larger one and I could see that the string was connected to the
cotton.They were both sitting on the bed, faces turned to each other and talking in low voices.
I’d heard snatches:
“We tried talking to her.”
“But, of course, his wife is in England.’
“I hope he’ll help support her and the child.”
Their conversation concerned a third party – another woman who’d made the wrong
choice. Terrible sharings about personal problems in progress meant I had to leave the
room when the detail was being dissected. Mama usually said “Your aunt and I have to
think things out loud that young ears cannot bear.”
“What’s this for?”
They stopped talking and in the very long pause that followed, I chattered on, asking
about the greenish blue stone in my mother’s necklace.
“Aquamarine,” was the immediate answer.
I was therefore not prepared for that gush of blood a year later, at my very first dance at
Isatou’s house. I had on my blue dress with the full skirt and tight waist. Slightly offshoulder
and specially tailored by Abi’s mother, in whose garage I had spent a couple of
afternoons, watching the tailor in order to hurry the dress along. At the party, I stood up
and made my way into Isatou’s kitchen to ask for a drink. On the way back, I noticed a
couple of fifth formers, who usually ignored me, whispering together and throwing a few
looks my way. Soon after, Isatou’s mother appeared at my shoulder.
“Come with me, dear. Your dress is soiled, can I give you something to use?”
What did I know of blood then? There had been no pain, yet she said, “The red splashes
are a confirmation of you becoming a woman.”
She must have talked to my mother on the phone because Ma had a pack of sanitary
towels ready when I got home.
“You know what to do now, don’t you? Use these supermarket bags to throw away the
used ones. Wrap them in two bags. You’ll need to take them out to the bin with the heavy
metal lid so the cats don’t get to them.”
And what I was left with were these heavy things between my legs that chaffed the skin
they rubbed against. And they smelled. My first party was over, and only my cousin
Tunji had asked me to dance.
As I try to drift back into sleep, the green baize door in the kitchen bangs shut, waking
me up for sure. Ma starts her clatter in the kitchen, and plans are afoot for today’s meal. I
make my way into the kitchen where she has a bowlful of akara mixture ready. The beans
were soaked, peeled and pounded yesterday, so all I have to do is to drop teaspoonfuls of
cream coloured mixture into sizzlingly hot oil and watch it deep-fry. My bean balls puff
up nicely; get themselves russet coloured without burning, as if they are keen for me to
have a nice birthday breakfast.
When Osman comes back with the bread, my akara is resting in a covered calabash on
the side and the fried onion and pepper sauce is sputtering in a small saucepan. He stands
outside the door, stiffly holding a batch of loaves wrapped in an old flour bag.
When we were little, he gave all of us pet names, mine was after my favourite orange
coloured forest fruit. My sisters were solom solom and saydame, after theirs. These were
all fruits that were best bought up-country and we’d beg him before he went home to
bring some back for us, rushing to him with a clutch of hastily grabbed dalasi notes in our
hands – “I want fourteen,” I might say, “so I can eat one for every day of the Christmas
school holiday.” Taiwo would ask for her solom soloms unpeeled, Kainde would ask him
to remember to find the biggest, creamiest tasting yellow saydames. “And don’t forget,”
my sisters would chorus, “bring us two bags each.” And Osman would nod and tickle us
under our chins and arms, and we would wriggle and squeal.
He’s become afraid of me. He no longer jokes or calls me little cabadombo.
When I open the door, I stare at his face, more out of curiosity than anything else. His
eyes are focused on my feet. When I glance down, all I can see is a line of brown sugar
ants following a crack in the cement pavement, heading for some nest buried underneath.
“Jere jaiffe,” I say as I reach for the loaves. I take longer than I need to, touching his
fingers and easing the bag out of his hands. I know I have this ability to make some men
uncomfortable looking at me. And it is getting stronger. I have sometimes caught thick
stares, the baobab juice kind, sticky and textured, that flick away the moment I turn to
face them. Even from Osman.
Osman used to help us climb mango trees, or catch avocadoes that we threw down from
the glossy leaved trees in the back garden. He used to help us light fires in charcoal
burners so we could roast maize or bake groundnuts in their shells. If we were really dirty
from playing in the muddy puddles outside the gate during the rainy season, he’d hose us
down after we stripped to our knickers. The last time he helped us was after we’d been
dancing in a rain storm, and were getting ready to go into the house. Osman asked us to
leave our wet things outside. My t-shirt got stuck as I tried to pull it over my head so I
walked towards Osman for help. He’d done the same for my sisters. But as the neck band
squeezed my ears tight and I bowed my head to make it easier to yank it off, my mother
drove in through the gate. I hardly had any breasts then, they were barely the size of a
mampatang. With one sour look in my direction, my mother barked at me, “Get inside at
once!” And to Osman, “Wait here, I need to speak to you.” She’d followed me into the
house, “You are growing up now, and you’re no longer a little girl.” And she’d sent me
off to have a proper shower.
I tell Osman my mum expects him back earlier than usual because us girls were all going
out to a party in the evening. Then I turn into the kitchen with the bread resting against
my chest spreading a soft warmth. I reach for a knife and slice a chunk off one of the
loaves. I cut through the soft vertical vein in its side, and then slobber in some onion
sauce before stuffing in the crispy balls.
Ma flaps her way into the kitchen to check on her Satiday soup, into which she’s flung
dried kuta from the deep Atlantic mixed with tripe and rump steak from the cows at Mr.
Pratt’s farm up the road. Later she’ll add some chopped greens from my grandmother’s
backyard and the okra I bought at the market yesterday. The okras are in a huge bowl of
water next to a chopping board and as she starts to get them ready she says, “You should
have chosen larger ones as these tiny little ones you bought will take ages to top, tail and
I hate market errands.
The only part I enjoy in making the soup is when I get to melt the oil, so I ask, “Can I do
the palm oil now?”
“Yes, you can. But you do need to concentrate a bit more on the whole process. Soup’s
not just about palm oil. It’s about all the ingredients. Unless you learn to get the details
right, you’ll never be able to make proper food in your own house.”
I go outside to collect the tin. The oil, usually stilled into a waxy orange when stored, has
been left outside in a sun bright enough to turn the edges soft and red. I use a large metal
scoop to ladle out eight spoonfuls and drop them into the furiously churning pot with the
beginnings: chunks of meat mixed with peppeh en yabbas, raw chilies and onions which
my ma has ground in our wooden mortar. As there is so much water in the pot, the oil
separates into swirls of orange, as if hesitant about mingling with what’s already in there.
Ma is justifiably proud of her cooking. Depending on the type of soup she intends to
make, she can add various enhancements - crushed egusi seeds, fermented tamarind, or a
large grey segment of crystallized soda. She would be surprised to find out I’ve paid any
attention at all to what she tells me, “When I make egusi soup, I like to mix it with a bit
of green. Some of your grandmother’s Yoruba friends make it with no greens but I think
that looks too coarse. Egusi needs balance.”
Or, to explain the mysteries of adding the right touch of okra, she says, “To stop the okra
from cutting in the soup, I’m going to add a largish chunk of lubi. I know your aunt in
England uses bicarbonate of soda but I think her soup lacks depth. This is why your
cousin Ladipo always comes round here on Saturdays when he’s home.”
Her secret she says is letting the soup come into its own. The meat has to soften, the egusi
has to blend, the oil has to turn. You simply cannot hurry it along.
My mother has taught me what she knows about being wily in love. Being deserted twice
by the same man in one life has limited her experience. My father ran off with his
secretary when I was four (and my sisters were two), came back home with his tail curled
in regret and promptly died a year later, of a stomach tumour.
She thinks, “All men have two faces – the one they show you before they get what they
want. This first face is attentive and caring. Then the coarse settles in and that’s the face
that stays for the rest of the time you know them.”
As far as she knows, marriage is a battle, “You have to find some way of storing up your
kindness in an armored case. Otherwise your man will leak you dry and you’ll find you
have none left – not even enough for your children.”
I don’t remember my father.
The story was featured in Kwani? 3. To enquire about please contact us with kwani 3 in the subject line.
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