My mother was gorgeous.
I could not remember seeing my mother look the way she did since I was about five or so. After my father disappeared, all her clothes and make-up took a back seat. She was making an effort tonight. My mother wore her hair short but it looked extra sharp around the edges and twinkled when the light hit the drops of oil with which she had moisturised hair and scalp. She was wearing a long skirt and blouse made from wax print and smelled of something rosy.
“Are you going on a date?” I asked. It was meant to come out as light-hearted banter but my throat must have squeezed shut at the last moment and it came out sounding scornful to my ears. Greg must have thought so too because he frowned.
“Is it too much?” My mother asked, hands reaching for the gold necklace at her throat. It was a crystal shaped like a four-leaf clover; no doubt one of Belinda’s gifts. She tugged on the edge of her blouse and I felt ashamed, but before I could say anything, Greg piped up.
“Don’t mind this bush girl, Aunty. You look beautiful.” He stroked his chin. “But if you want to go out on a date, I would love to take you.” He winked at her. “You pretty young thing.”
“Greg!” said my mother at the same time. I could see she was happy. “What do you mean ‘Eww’?” She rounded on me. “You don’t think somebody will like to date me?” My mother sounded hurt again.
“Somebody might. But not Greg.”
“Are you saying your mother is too good for me?” Greg asked.
I sighed. “Yes.”
My mother laughed at that. Greg turned up the music. It was one of Osadebe’s records and he started singing along and dancing like an old man. My mother laughed some more. Slapping away any attempts to involve her, she escaped to the kitchen to check on the prepared dishes.
“I don’t know why she keeps running to the kitchen. It’s not as if the food is going to grow wings and fly away.”
“Are you seriously going to leave me dancing by myself?” Greg asked. He was losing himself to the music, I could see, his traditional long shirt and trousers billowing faintly as he danced.
“What is it with you and linen?” I asked, ignoring his question. My finger tasted weird as I licked it to turn the newspaper.
“What is it with you and sulking? It’s a beautiful day.”
“I’m not sulking. I’m just full and I don’t feel like dancing.”
“You eat too much when you’re nervous. I think you’re eating your feelings again. You should dance them instead. I didn’t get this way by sitting on my ass.” Greg pulled up his shirt. It was as if he stuffed pieces of Lego under the skin of his abdomen, stomach hard and defined.
“When did you become such a show off?”
“I was always a show off. I prefer the term ‘showman’ though.”
“Show off,” I said.
“Com’on Otito. It can’t be that bad. Dance, look,” he said moving back. “I’ve even left space for your bum-bum.”
“Idiot.” My stomach grumbled but I knew one more bite of anything was guaranteed to make me hurl my guts. Greg was whirling around and I smiled in spite of myself. “You really are a big kid, you know that?”
“I know. But I am not the one whose stomach is in knots because her cousin is coming to…Listen,” Greg knelt in front of me, lowering his voice so that my mother could not hear. “I know how you’re feeling. I do. But, Otito…”
“Abby,” I corrected.
“Abby,” he made a face. “I think you’re over-thinking this. Yes, Belinda was a mean, mean, meanie to you but you are no longer kids now. Stop regressing and look at all you have in front of you. You have a great job, you buy your own clothes, you have your own life, you built this house for your mother…you’re pretty terrific actually. I wouldn’t mind having you for a daughter.” He searched my face, brown eyes glinting. I could see the beginnings of a smile. “And if I date your mum, who knows? You just might be.” I took a swipe at him and he dodged, nearly cracking his head on the coffee table. He got up laughing and resumed his old-man steps.
Greg confused me a lot recently. We both knew he and Eke were an item so why he chose to act like he was not ‘that way inclined’ was puzzling, especially considering that he was one of the most forthright people I knew. Maybe be played for both teams? I shook my head. It didn’t matter. Greg would come out when he was good and ready and I was resolved to be there for him. I was still dealing with the guilt from abandoning him after his father died.
I tossed the newspaper aside and went to join him.
“Oh yeah,” he said. He lifted me up by the waist and spun me around.
“Be careful!” I screamed when my head almost went into the blades of the ceiling fan.
“I always am,” said Greg putting me back down. “Now shake it loose. Shake it, shake it.” He shook his shoulders in time to the music, looking a bit like a demented bat. “You’re not doing it well,” he said when I tried to imitate him. “You’re too stiff.”
“I am not too stiff,” I said, doing a little shimmy.
“OK, not like that. This is not a night club,” he said. I continued, shutting my eyes. When I shook my head, I could feel my hair, tickling the sides of my face. I had to wait a long time as the salon was full but eventually it was my turn and Okezie had worked wonders, straightening and tonging until my hair was nice and full. I had turned the fan down as I waited so that it was cooling enough without spoiling my hair style but as I moved, I could feel sweat beading on my upper lip. The knots in my stomach had all but disappeared.
Feeling foolish at my earlier behaviour, I opened my eyes. “I’d better stop now, I don’t want to…” Greg had a weird look on his face. “What?”
“Your tongue is black.”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s black. Ah! See?” He stepped closer, raising my fingertips to my face. They were stained black. “The newspaper,” we said in unison.
“No wonder my mouth tasted funny. Yeugh.”
“Let me see?” said Greg peering in my mouth. I stuck my tongue out. Greg scratched at it with a fingernail.
I started to say, ‘Let me go and brush my tongue’, but ended up having my mouth closed around Greg’s finger. That by itself wasn’t so strange. As kids, Greg and I used to have our fingers in each other’s mouths all the time – we were big eaters and loved to share everything from bites of mango to bits of gum and sweets, the forbidden stuff which we had to hide. That didn’t explain the next thing I did though.
It was only a slight pressure and I was sure – even as it happened – it was something my brain threw up from memory unheeding of the decades that had passed between then and now. It didn’t make it any less strange. The dark points in Greg’s eyes expanded outwards pushing out the brown until all that remained was a tiny rim.
“OK, that was weird.” The finger sliding out of my mouth left a trail of saliva on my lower lip. I wiped it with the back of my hand, smearing my lip gloss across half of my face.
“Otito…” Greg began, but the sound of tyres outside cut him off. I turned towards the sound, as my mother flew past.
“She’s here! My baby,” she screamed.
“Oh God,” I said feeling the lightness in my mood evaporate. Greg cleared his throat behind me. “Com’on Greg. Let’s get this over with.” I followed my mother outside, my thin-soled leather thongs slapping against the soles of my feet. The tinted Jeep pulled into the compound, taking up almost all the space in front. The skirt of my white cotton dress swished in the false breeze raised by the jeep.
“Aunt Aggy!” said Belinda, throwing herself from the back of the vehicle. She pronounced it ‘An Eh-gy’.
“My B’lin,” said my mother. The hugged each other tightly.
“Oh Christ, save my soul,” I muttered under my breath. I could hear them chattering as they hugged each other again and again. Belinda didn’t even notice I was there or if she did she showed no sign of it. I shielded my eyes, waiting for the other occupants of the car to alight. My Aunty Mabel took her sweet time getting down from the car as usual but my uncle was already out. I hugged him. “Uncle Vince. Good afternoon. I didn’t know you were back in town.” My uncle often travelled for business for weeks at a time depending on location. I had enquired of his whereabouts every week. There was no way I was going over to his house if he wasn’t in.
“Is that why you haven’t come to see us?” His voice was gruff but I knew he was mocking me.
My uncle was a tall man with greying temples. He had always been thin but he seemed to have got even thinner since I went away. It was as if he Aunty Mabel was eating for the both of them. He always dressed simply too – today he was wearing a grey safari suit and leather sandals. His glasses went into ‘tint’ mode when he hit the sun. “You look well. Very healthy,” said my uncle. I grimaced. Healthy normally meant one thing to elderly Africans, but it was especially painful knowing my uncle’s preference. Aunty Mabel was fat after all.
“Oh daddy, ever the gentleman. We Americans would just say she looked fat,” said Belinda from behind me. Strike one. I could feel my shoulders tightening. My cousin stalked over. She had on a straight midi skirt in a geometric print which came up almost to her chest and a sleeveless cropped top inscribed with an obscure pop-culture reference, baring her toned arms. There was a tiny silver stud in one eyebrow. Her human hair weave was cut in a heavy fringe and the bob was artfully messy. She wasn’t wearing make-up apart from slashed of eyeliner that made her look like a cat. Or else she was wearing make-up but it was done so subtly that I couldn’t place my finger on what she was wearing. I just knew that she looked great; cool and edgy. Her face was more angular somehow. I felt overdressed and…twee in my outfit.
Belinda looked me over like her mother had except that hers took all of two seconds. I had chosen my dress to flatter my shape; it was fitted at the waist and flared outwards, stopping at the knee 1950s style. The cut hid my bottom and the Broderie Anglaise lace was cute and pretty but I could see Belinda’s eyes cutting through the finery to stab at my weakness within. She smiled, flashing white, white teeth. “Oh cuz! It’s so good to see you.”
“Hi Belinda,” I returned the hug.
“It’s B’lin,” she said, blinking, the eyeliner accentuating every flutter.
I still thought it was a stupid name but I conceded. “Alright. B’lin.”
“B’lin,” she repeated.
“B’lin. That’s what I said.”
“You’re saying it wrong. Must be your accent. Was it always so thick?” Strike two.
“Was yours always so American?” I asked. Waves of irritation mounted and broke. Belinda was still smiling at me as if I was a mad relative she must endure for the sake of the family.
“Well, I left earlier than you did,” she said, almost swallowing her tongue as she pronounced ‘earlier’ with undue emphasis. “It’s easier to pick up an accent when you’re younger I guess.”
“You were nineteen.”
“Heigh-ho,” she said. “Anywho…” she gazed off behind me towards the house. “Who’s the hottie? Don’t tell me you found someone to date your sorry ass.” She nudged me playfully but I knew she wasn’t joking.
“It’s pronounced ‘ahss’” I said. “In English.”
“Potato, po-tah-to,” she said.
“Hi Belinda,” said Greg coming up behind me. Belinda frowned.
“Hi,” she said, flashing her whiteness at him. She looked from me to him. “I’m sorry by cousin is being so rude. I don’t think we’ve met…”
“It’s Greg,” said Greg.
“Greg…?” Her eyes widened. “Oh my gawd! Gobbling Greg?!”
“One and the same,” said Greg, not even flinching. He bent over to hug her.
“You’re so tall now. And so…wow. When did you get so hot? This is new,” she squeezed his biceps and stepped back beaming appreciatively.
“Oh Belinda. Always subtle.”
“It’s B’lin,” she said.
“Yeah, I’m not calling you that,” said Greg. “What is it with you guys in this family and name changing?”
“Who changed their name?” asked Belinda. “Oh you mean Otito, right?”
“It’s Abby,” I said.
“No it’s not. It’s Abuotito, armpit boils.” She laughed, clapping her hands together. “I’m only kidding. Lighten up,” she said. “Why you gotta be so serious all the time? At least your boyfriend’s cute…”
“…He’s not my boyfriend,” I said.
“As if,” said Greg.
“…And you’re not hideous,” continued Belinda ignoring us. “You might need to work on your ass a little bit.”
“No she doesn’t,” said Greg. “It’s bootylicious.”
“God, are you guys still saying that around here? It’s so 90s.” She flicked at her fringe with one pointed fingernail painted in black with what looked like a gold streak of lightning running through it.
“Look at it,” Greg insisted, spinning me around. “Have you ever seen one so round and high?”
“Greg, stop it,” I said pushing him away. My uncle was greeting his sister and the car door slammed. I had almost forgotten Aunty Mabel.
“Is there an air conditioner inside the house? It’s boiling.” Belinda fanned herself. “I guess that’s why mum’s been in the car. Plus my baby can’t take the humidity. He was dying in Lagos. Hey baby,” she called, walking towards her betrothed “You good?”
“Is she seriously kissing him in front of her parents?” Greg whispered. “That is disgusting. She’s trying to put her tongue in. It’s like two snakes fighting.”
“Greg, why are you so disgusting?” I asked, turning around.
I heard the sound of something ripping and knew it was my universe tearing itself asunder. The man supporting Aunty Mabel as she trudged up the sandy compound was tall and athletic-looking. His skin had tanned rather than burnt, hinting at his roots. He wore wraparound sunglasses to shield his eyes from the sun, but even without them I would have known the colour of his eyes anywhere; green and grey with a ring of brown in the centre.
“This is my cousin Abuotito,” said Belinda.
“Hi,” said Wes, holding out his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”