In April of last year, I took six months off writing on these pages so that I could complete a book that was burning a hole in my heart. Those six months have come and gone and what I have to show for them is less than half of a manuscript. The following stories come from that manuscript. I hope breaking it up like this will encourage me to complete the book in this life time.
GRASS IS GREEN
Nine years ago when he moved to Lagos, Ezurike got a two-room apartment in a storey building built in the face-me-I-face-you style. One of the rooms served as his bedroom and store while the other adjoining room was the living room. When two of his cousins, Hyginus and Geoferry, moved to Lagos, they stayed with him. Though Hyginus was the older of the two, Geoffery moved to Lagos first and so had been staying with Ezurike for longer.
Each pay day, Ezurike would disburse monies following a carefully written out budget. The money for upkeep was always given to Geoffery, so even when Hyginus came, the money was still given to Geoffery. How it was spent was never a concern of Ezurike’s, as long as there was food on the table.
Geoffery, however, ruled what he considered his fiefdom with an iron fist on the home front, and a generous hand when dealing with outsiders.
He would lock the cupboard where cooked food was stored and go out to play table tennis for hours, leaving Hyginus hungry till he returned. Yet he would lend money freely to railway workers till pay day. He joked with them about how he was the only one they could get ‘salary advance’ from, and they called him ‘small oga’.
This continued and Hyginus said nothing about it until the day Ezurike returned unexpectedly and found Hyginus sitting out on the balcony, a low wooden kitchen chair under him and his back resting against the wall.
“Bia nwoke m, where is your brother?”
“Broda nno, welcome. Geoffery went out.” Hyginus answered, getting up to take Ezurike’s bag.
“Where did he go?”
“I don’t know, broda.”
Ezurike slowed down and watched Hyginus’s retreating back. The way he stiffened his spine and looked straight ahead told him Hyginus knew more than he was telling.
Aluminium pail bucket hanging from one hand, towel hanging from his neck, a wrapper around his waist and the plastic container that served both as soap dish and water scoop in his other hand, Ezurike was walking to the parlour door from the bathroom he shared with all the other tenants living on his floor, when he heard footsteps coming up the stairs to his right. He turned toward the sound which had stopped, and saw Geoffery standing frozen. His right foot was on the last step, his left foot behind, one step down.
Without saying a word to him, Ezurike continued to the parlour door where he set down the pail upside down, placed the soap dish on top of it and shook the wetness from his slippers before pulling aside the curtain and walking in.
After dinner, he summoned Geoffery and Hyginus and, with all three of them seated, he asked them about that day’s events and about what had been happening in his absence.
“There is no point lying to me, because I have formed my opinion on what it is. Who wants to speak first?”
“Ezurike is taking too much! Ehn, Romanus? What kind of rubbish is this?” She loosened the scarf from her head and tied it around her waist, her once black hair now going grey was done in plaits.
“What else did my son say?” She asked, pointing to the letter in Romanus’s hand. What other hardship is Ezurike subjecting my boy to? I did not beg him to take Geoffery to Lagos. He was the one that said learning seke will help him get a good job in the city. Is that the reason why he should beat my son? I am asking you, Romanus. Is that how you people do things in the city?” She querried.
“Mama Geo, take it easy. I have known Ezurike all my life, and even though he has a temper, he is not a mad man that he will flog your son without reason. I am sure there is a reason Geo is not telling us.” Romanus tried to reason with her.
“Ehn, even then, did I beg him to flog my son? With a belt? Is he questioning Geo’s upbringing? Geo’s father has been dead all these years, his older brother is away in ugwu-awusa, and now Ezurike wants to pluck my eye out with a belt. Roma biko, you will help me write a reply to Geo.” She paused to catch her breath. “You will tell him that I have heard his cry. Tell him I said I am sure there is a lot more suffering he is not telling me about, but that he can be sure that I can sense it; after all, I am his mother. Write and tell him I will go to Ezurike’s mother and tell her how this matter is in my mind; none of them helped me carry him for ten moons. Romanus are you listening, ehn?” He nodded his head to show he was following, even though, in honesty, he had been lost after the third sentence.
“Ehen! Tell him I said he too is a man nu, na o bu dimkpa, and that if Ezurike tries himself again, he has my blessings to show him with what strength he plans to protect his father’s homestead.” She thumped her chest with her right palm at this. “Ehn, tell him I said so.” With that she went to the rectangle with the zinc roofing at the back of the house that served as the family kitchen, the mud walls stained black by layer over layer of soot.
Although Romanus did not doubt that Ezurike could, and would not hesitate to, discipline anybody he felt was in need of correcting, he also suspected Geoffery had not told the full story in the letter he had written to his mother. The only person he knew who could clear this up, other than Ezurike himself, was Hyginus. So, that very week, he sent off two letters to Lagos: one to Goeffery, and the other to Hyginus.
“Nsogbu a diro, There is no problem. I see that you are a grown man, and I respect that. You will pack your things and return home to your father’s compound. Your mother needs a man to help keep the wild cats away from the chicken coop. You, Geoffery, are that man.” Ezurike delivered his speech calmly, maybe too calmly.
He had been sorting out the files in the drawers of the shelf in the parlour. Not wanting to discard any important document, he had sat on a stool and browsed each enveloped and sheet of paper he found. The airmail envelope with the red and blue border did not draw particular attention to itself, except if one considered how creased, and well worn it looked. The blue writing paper it contained was smudged in a lot of places from frequent handling. The handwriting looked vaguely familiar. It was the ‘I’, with the elaborate curves, written almost as a reverse ‘P’, that caught his eyes. These were the same from the letters from his mother back home! Letters written by Romanus. As his eyes travelled down the page, his brows furrowed. Done, he got up off the stool and hitched his wrapper higher up around his waist, the knot hanging just under his belly.
He stood there and played back some events: Goeffery’s recent insolence, as if goading him; Hyginus’s wariness, as if walking on egg shells. He had pondered them. It all made sense finally.
Now looking up at Geoffery begging not to be sent back to the village, he wondered what exactly he was supposed to say or do. He had sent Hyginus to stay with another relative, which was the original plan anyway. He was going to apprentice under an uncle who drove a pick up truck for Nigeria Breweries.
The village was not the best place for Geoffery, he knew. Not after the year he had spent in his secretarial studies classes. He had two job interviews lined up: one as an office clerk with Leventis stores, another with a company Ezurike could not remember now.
“Nwoke m, I have heard your promises and apolgies. Nsogbu a diro, but you will still go back home to spend some time with your mother. It is clear that she misses you, and when you start work, you may not get time to go and see her for a long time.” Ezurike spoke in that calm and logical manner he has that had people agreeing with him even when they want to disagree.
“You will leave in two days and will stay for two weeks. I will send you with a message for my mother. When you come back, we will look at this matter properly.” He finished.
“Thank you broda,” Geoffery said.
Ezurike leaned back in his favourite armchair, put both feet up on the stool and turned up the volume of the radio. The matter was ended.