Asma’u braved the wind and stoically walked into the tall, edgeless building. She listened to the whispers of the harmattan wind whipping its clear walls and cringed; it sounded like wailing and screaming of pain mingled together. It felt like the desire for freedom but instead found the abominable and would like to unsee it; it portrayed her pain. It expressed her pain, offering her the freedom to curb it as well as revel in it. How else could she express the death of curious Aminu Joseph Gambo, her only brother Aminu and her mother, the genteel Mrs Aniebiet Verity Gambo aka Hajia Kinane. She sighed at the comfort their wailing offered.
Ahead of her were her teachers. While Ms Fontayn was the vice principal of their school, and Dr Mrs Ezinhe was the leader of the group. Mr Orume, the principal, excitedly left soon after he’d brought in their suitcases. She watched them zigzag around the other group of their party, her classmates. She had carried hers with great reverence which attracted Ms Fontayn’s attention and the suspicious Mrs Abdullah. While her teachers eyed her suitcase, her classmates had taken different angles of posture on the available seats in the airport. Drowsy with sleep as they were, it was a wonder that none of them fell.
She had seen an old woman in crutches vacate a seat and lurched towards it. The woman returned moments later, but she refused to get up much to the consternation of her teachers. The people around them had something unpleasant to say about a girl who wouldn’t give her seat for an elderly person, albeit that the elderly woman had laid claim to it first.
She overheard them talk, but to her, they sounded like the dying rumbles that echoed through a thirsty tap. With her chin still resting on her knees, she looked down at her feet and counted her toenails. Her mother would never have let her wear the sandals she had on. But was she there to stop her from wearing them, or from carrying the silk sarong, the gold bracelet with matching earrings and necklace?
No. Her head was kissing the concrete floor of their living room and would soon clamour with arid dust. She cringed as thoughts of her brother lying awkwardly in her mother’s bathtub clawed its way into her thoughts. She fought to erase it from her thoughts, but it stood firmly almost as firm as her brother’s dark hand wrapped around their mother’s pink lace sarong. She wondered if he’d gone to get it for her because she griped about taking it; he probably didn’t want her to get in trouble.
She glanced at her classmates splayed around a long chair like a crudely arranged aisle. She had no friends in their midst as was expected. She wasn’t supposed to be on this trip in the first place, but her mother had other plans for the eve of her birthday. It was unfortunate, those plans too, most of it would have to wait, forever. She had questions. They buzzed annoyingly, in and out of her thoughts. Each time she plugged them, one after the other, still came forth like a bag with holes until she was no longer able to stop their barrage. She decided to focus on the people in the airport, especially at the man whose shirt barely covered his stomach, as he snored with his mouth wide open, dripping saliva. On a typical day, she would have found the steady cap on his vibrating head amusing. But yesterday’s event had overshadowed so much so that she could almost taste the blood in everything around her. She tried to control her breathing.
You can’t go back. She looked surreptitiously at her teachers and brought her emotions back in check. For if the teachers suspected that she wasn’t alright, they might want to take her back home then they’ll all know that she was now motherless and brotherless. She wasn’t going to cry in front of her classmates neither was she going to give up her seat. They were not her crowd. They were outsiders. They only had to know what she would tell them. And if she had to tell them anything, it would be that she had to follow her mother’s instructions. She sniggered at following her mother’s instructions.
More memories jettisoned. They sprung up like the spring in the middle of her mattress. Her mother had promised to change it as soon as they returned from Scotland.
“Make sure you have your jackets in hands,” she heard Dr Mrs Ezinhe say in a cringingly distorted accent. “It will be colder than usual when we arrive.”
“We live in Kano where it’s cold,” Tia, one of the IT girls in school, murmured, trying to undermine their teacher.
Dr Mrs Ezinhe continued, “your jacket will prevent your hearts from plummeting into the jungle of ruminating in the awful blight of ‘I told you so.”
The girls clamoured around, first in search of their suitcases then in search of their jackets.
“Well done, Asma’u Verity Gambo,” Dr Mrs Ezinhe said, without lifting her head from her book.
She heard her name but didn’t react. From the despise in the other girls’ words, she gathered that it was because she had her jacket with her. But she was holding unto her jacket because there was no space left in her suitcase.
“Girls!” Ms Fontayn cried excitedly. “It’s time. Come with me!”
She reluctantly left the comfort of her corner of the long chair and made her way clumsily to the queue. She was the last to join the line but somehow ended up behind Ms Fontayn.
Soon after they boarded the plan, Dr Mrs Ezinhe did a headcount. When she got to her, she asked with concern, “are you okay?”
She nodded and turned to face the window. She stared at the sun in its lustrous glory as it stood demurely defiant and boastful over the clouds and wondered why it had hidden Uncle Ramiu’s intention to possess what belonged to his brother. She tried to figure out how she got way up in the sky. Shaking her head, she ruefully sighed and let the waters of her memory break its banks.
Tired of her mother’s controlling ways, she went to the corner of the house, to the disrobed car sandwiched between their house and the boys’ quarters on double-decked tyres. Sitting on the weathered passenger seat – the only one – she mused. Wild with excitement, she stared at the skeletal roof of the car, imagining the places she and Aminu would visit with her father. He was coming home, right on time for her sixteenth birthday. He had promised her the best cake in the shop and a big party, and her mother would do well to stay out of it.
“Asma’u!” Hajia Kinane shouted from above her.
What does she want now? she groaned, stamping her feet in frustration, then she heard her name a second time and shouted, “Ma!” before traipsing grudging towards the main house to meet her mother.
When she finally got to her mother’s room, her mother patted on the bed beside her and said, “sit beside me,”.
She pushed the round leather ottoman to the middle of the room and sat awkwardly on it.
“You can’t hate me forever,” Hajia Kinane started, sucked in air and exhaled heavily. “You know the excursions you keep talking about? I’ve enrolled you for the next one. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t know I could meet the deadline.”
She stared at her mother, thinking for a moment that her mother had gone mad. She curled her hands into fists and got up abruptly wishing she could pummel some sense into her mother but remembered her grandmother’s threat. If she raised her voice, her grandmother, who was next door, would hear and send for the may-guard and his koboko. As her mother feared her mother-in-law’s vile tongue, she didn’t stand a chance, so she began to pace.
“My father is coming next weekend,” she said and bit back tears. “He’ll be here the day before my birthday with everything I need to throw my sixteenth birthday like every normal person my age.” She griped then paused and turned to face her mother. “The trip falls on my birthday. My birthday. I don’t even like horses.”
“What is going on?” Mrs Gambo, her grandmother, blurted out as she threw the door open without knocking.
“We’re good ma, aren’t we child?” Her mother had asked, poking her.
“No Mummy, we’re not! I’m not going to that stupid trip. If I want to see horses, I can go to the polo club in Zaria polo club. You know none of my friends will be on this trip that’s why you’re doing this. You enjoy making me miserable. My father is coming home, and you want me away. You just hate me, that’s what it is.”
Hajia Kinane crossed her arms and let out a long, tired sigh.
“Karamin, your father isn’t coming,” her grandmother urged and inched closer to the younger two. “Don’t raise her hope, my daughter.”
“Trust you take my mother’s side,” she muttered before she could stop herself.
“Eh!?” Mrs Gambo’s eyes bulged, her mouth hung open just as her hands flew to her head.
“Ma, don’t be offended. I’ll handle this,” Hajia Kinane said and scrubbed her forehead, suddenly looking exhausted.
Her grandmother crossed her arms and waited.
“In private, if you don’t mind.”
Her grandmother scoffed as she exited. “You’re spoiling this girl.” At the door, she spun and glaring at her, said: “Just because you have a mouth does not mean you have to use it anyhow.”
She rolled her eyes and would have clucked her tongue if her mother had not been in the room. As soon as her grandmother was out of sight, she turned to her mother. “Please Mummy, cancel the trip. I’ll do anything you ask of me, I promise.”
“You’ve been doing an outstanding job of that,” Hajia Kinane retorted sarcastically.
“Me I’m not going for any trip o,” she muttered under her breath and was about to stamp her feet.
“Behave yourself and sit down.”
Her mother’s tone of voice subdued her.
“Now listen! We’re supposed to all leave together but to cut the cost you have to go on the trip. We’ll meet you in two weeks.”
“Is my father coming?”
“Of course,” her mother said and pressed a solitary finger over her lips – an indication that what she said was never to leave her room.
She excitedly ran into her mother’s arms. Her mother held her a little longer than usual and brushed back her hair. She didn’t care. Her father was coming with them. That was all that mattered. She danced while her mother looked on. Suspicious, she stopped abruptly and turned to see her mother’s face, “But -”
“I’ve already discussed this with Miss Fontayn. She’ll take you to the train station. Don’t enter any train o! Aunty Habiba will come and get you at the train station. I wrote her a letter. When you meet, give it to her. Did you hear me?” she nodded. “Good. I will go and change the money which you will use for a taxi just in case she can’t meet you at the train station. Her address is in the white purse.”
“You said you’re all coming –”
“In the evening,” Hajia Kinane cut in and continued slowly, “it’ll be too dark for a young girl like you to be out and about. We’ve agreed to meet you at Aunty Habiba’s. You must wait at her place. You can roll your eyes all you want, but nothing I’ve said must leave this room.”
Hajia Kinane let out an exasperated sigh and stretched her hand towards the head of her four-poster bed. Not reaching it, she shifted into the bed and pulled something out from under her pillow. It was a blood-red, leather patchwork knapsack. “I’ve put everything we’ll need here.” She paused briefly, frowning. “Ehen, if for any reason Uncle Ramiu sends for me, remove this envelop and tuck it inside my pillow. Inside my pillow,” her mother pulled her ear for emphasis. “You cannot for any reason, miss your school trip or you’ll be left alone here.” Hajia Kinane sneezed and discharged her.
“What if the house catches fire?” she asked as she made her way to the door.
“Then, so be it.”
She hurried to the door and was about to shut the door when she heard a strange voice behind her.
She blinked. It was Ms Fontayn.
“What happened?” Ms Fontayn asked, offering her a handkerchief.
She shuddered and frantically wiped her face with the back of her hands. She could still see the brown stains, especially the one she had taken outside with her shoes. She cringed. The varied scents on her classmates and teachers did nothing to dampen the smell of blood, like rusted copper coins, it hovered around her, judging her. She hadn’t had the time to take her bath and suspected it lingered around her because she had slept in it.
She cried, “go away!” when Ms Fontayn made to sit down.
The woman looked aghast and with a stern voice said, “curb your emotion child!”
“Leave me alone!”
She pulled back for a moment. “One more outburst and I’m reporting you to your mother.”
Her eyes fell. There’ll be no one to report me to and its all my fault. She turned her head to the window, leaning into her seat and began to cry uncontrollably. She had cried and begged her mother to let her go on one of the school trips every year and the one year she didn’t ask for it; it was offered. Her mother had succumbed in her final year, knowing that her birthday would fall on the same day as their school trip. Her friends weren’t on this trip because it was too far and too expensive.
The thought of not seeing Aminu again brought fresh tears to her eyes. Ms Fontayn tried to comfort her, but she distanced away. It was her fault that she wasn’t going to see her brother again. It was her fault that her brother wouldn’t see his father now that he is older. She should have listened; ‘lock the gate after you’ she’d been told on several occasions. She should have learned after her pig was stolen. Her I-don’t-care attitude had cost her the only family she had, and she didn’t deserve comfort.
“Oh dear,” Ms Fontayn sighed and stretched a handkerchief to her face.
“It’s my fault!” she finally said in between sobs. I should have locked the gate. They would not have entered our house if I had locked the gate. I should have locked the gate. Mummy, I didn’t mean to leave it open, I swear.
“Verity, you’ll only be gone for two weeks. You’ll make up for your wrongdoings as soon as we get back, okay? You can apologise then, profusely I might add,” Ms Fontayn finished with a comforting smile.
Ms Fontayn’s statement made her feel worse. She shook her head. It was her fault. She was instructed; she didn’t obey. She was demonstrating her need for independence to her mother, but at what cost?
“Your fault that your mother didn’t come with you?”
“It’s my fault. It’s all my fault,” she moaned and bawled again.
“Oh, dear, dear, dear. You’re sixteen, mistake-prone and learning. It’ll be okay,” Ms Fontayn said, her voice gentle and soothing, then pulled her close, and though she struggled for a moment, she remained in Ms Fontayn’s arms, crying until she fell asleep. She had slept through the flight because when she woke up, the aeroplane was taxing down the runway in Scotland. She stretched her aching body and yawned.
“You’ve been as quiet as a mouse,” Tia said. She stood akimbo on the aisle beside her, and her twin sister’s head peeked behind her.
“Didn’t cry a river much less an ocean,” her twin quipped, and they chuckled.
“Prude, leave her alone!” a voice warned from behind her.
“Paper-pusher, learn to mind your business,” Tia’s twin retorted.
Tommy-ache,” the girl answered back then mimicked, “learn to mind your business.”
“Fowl nyash,” Tia said proudly.
The girl chuckled. “Is that the best you could come up with?”
Tia’s twin huffed and turned away while Tia went to meet Ms Fontayn brushing past another teacher.
“Alright girls, that’s enough. You know what to do, that includes you, Tia,” Ms Fontayn spoke before Tia could get a word out.
She didn’t want it to end. It was a neat distraction from her thoughts.
“But Miss?” Tia griped.
“Not the place or time. Besides, you could try being friendly while you’re at it.” She nodded at the teacher who Tia had brushed aside.
Tia did try to be friendly if being friendly was pouring water on her pillow or filling her diary with ink because she couldn’t open it. her docility baffled everyone. She didn’t talk back, argue, or pin any of them down. She looked on morosely, grimacing at intervals, but when she couldn't hold it in, she ran to the toilet and cried her eyes out. Almost everything reminded her of her family even the damp pillow and refused to join in for the group photos.
She had gotten incredibly close to an injured dog at the stable. It seemed to like her too. She walked the dog, played with it, and was stuck to it until they were due back home to Nigeria. She only had her father to look forward to, and a woman she had never met. She wasn’t sure she would recognise him if she saw him. Her mother had told her that he was her grandmother’s carbon copy. She had frowned at the thought, considering it inconceivable. Because her grandmother’s face was as wrinkly as molten lava.
They hurried into the bus most of them half asleep. She was mostly indifferent to the events. Her heart ached for the dog that became her constant companion until it left the clinic a few days before.
“Feeling better?” Ms Fontayn asked, casting a shadow over her.
She politely nodded. Thoughts of her father shadowed her mind. she had no real recollection of him, just his voice – she hadn’t seen him in nine years.
“Excited about seeing your aunt I bet,” Ms Fontayn murmured, rubbing her hands together and looking out of the bus then stepped aside to let some of the students through.
She shrugged. She wasn’t sure of anything anymore. Was she going to be forced to go back to the house that was filled with dead bodies? If her father insisted, would Aunty Habiba let her stay here? For a while, at least. She couldn’t possibly go back to that house.
“Your mother asked me to drop you at Glasgow Queen Street. I don’t know where it is, but the driver does. Your aunt will be picking you up in an hour. Write to us, will you?”
She shrugged again and again. She got off the bus at the train station. She would have liked to compare it with something, but she had nothing in mind. It was the first time for everything for her; the flight from Abuja to Lagos, Lagos to Glasgow amongst other things. She tucked her hands into the sleeves of her jacket as she paced. Everything around her was large, territorial, and imposing. There was a lot of glass windows and doors, even walls. She had learned to stay far away from glass after almost losing a finger a few years back. She looked at her hand and saw the small indentation across her forefinger. It had nearly disappeared. She sniggered and shook her head.
“Excuse me, could you spare me a loose change? A pound will go a long way. I assure you.”
She wrinkled her nose and gave him a condescending gaze.
He cussed and scurried to another man who had just stepped out of the station. She watched the new man shake his head and walk on. She became restless and began to pace again just as the same man returned. As he did, a few police officers came towards them, and one was ordinarily dressed like a Nigerian law student in a white shirt and black trouser. She had already heard from her teachers that the police officers in the UK were more trustworthy.
“Is that man troubling you?” one of them asked.
She thought the man looked frightened and shook her head.
“Would you feel better waiting inside? You’re waiting for –” another one asked.
“My aunt, she’ll find me here,” she murmured and paused thoughtfully. “Could you please tell me where I can find a taxi going to Perthshire?”
“You want to hire a taxi?” he asked, his brow raised.
She frowned and nodded at the same time, wondering why he looked like he didn’t believe her.
“That’s a long way away,” the lady in their midst side, her hands were tucked in her gilet which looked too big for her small frame. “You could come with. O’Malley, give the girl a lift home, will you?”
The casually dressed man seemed to mirror her reluctance as he led her to his car. He gestured to her and waved at a woman who was crossing the street towards them.
“This is Mrs Rustgulden, my mother,” he said and quickly helped the woman with her bags and gestured. “That’s,” he started and frowned. “what’s your name?”
“Verity. Good morning Ma,” she quickly replied and folded her lips into her mouth.
“Verity,” he explained to Mrs Rustgulden. “I’m giving her a lift to Perth.”
The woman appraised her, her dusty-brown hair fell around her face like an upturned bowl.
She stepped out of the woman’s way as the woman’s mouth moved as if she was trying to gurgle, only there was no sound. A while later, the woman dug a hand into her olive-coloured oversized coat, brought out a small translucent box, opened her mouth and with a scratching sound brought out what looked like her teeth. her eyes widened as she stared at the woman. The man caught and poked her, then rebuked her with a shake of his head. She sat in the back seat beside the woman’s bags which smelt like a mixture of moth, menthol, honey, and locust beans. To create some distance between herself and the woman’s things, she wrapped her arms around herself and looked out of the window.
Interestingly, when she saw bee huts, she thought of Uncle Ramiu’s wife; goats, she thought of her grandmother, who no longer seemed so annoying. The smell of cow dung entered the car. The man groaned, his mother laughed, while she held her breath.
It was the first time she had been in a quiet car. As they travelled, she imagined meeting her father, and she was filled with sublime hope. Aunty Habiba may be family, but her father was all the family she had left.
“We’ve arrived at the fair city. We’re about are you heading?”
She quickly dug into her blood-red knapsack and brought a piece of paper out of her bag. She mentioned the address; the two people in front looked at each other but said nothing. As soon as they drove past a street that looked like an oversize market, he asked again. She repeated the same thing. He drove into a large car park and stopped.
“May I see the address?” he asked, turning so she saw that acne had covered only one side of his profile.
She offered it to him. He, in turn, offered it to the old woman. They were quiet for a long time.
Mrs Rustgulden replaced her teeth. “She lives with us but will not be around at this time.”
Mother and son exchanged a look that had not gone unnoticed.
“Okay. Thank you very much,” she said quickly, relieved and somewhat suspicious.