The days that followed my movement to a new home were pretty simple. I found myself locked up in my room in the afternoon but I would step out occasionally to sit with mama outside. The entire house was always quiet except for the sound of Ochanya sometimes singing or the gate man’s radio playing from a distance. My evenings were slightly different. Mama made me follow her for daily masses and we walked to the church most times since it wasn’t far. Sometimes, we would stroll around the estate before heading home finally. “It is good for your legs; they need exercise” she would say whenever I complained I was tired. After our walk, we would have dinner together with Uncle Joe and Aunty Nse. Sometimes Uncle Joe would be missing from the dinner table, other times, Aunty Nse and most times, both, leaving mama and I to a pleasant dinner where we didn’t have to force conversations.
Days turned into weeks as activities turned into routines. Nothing eventful occurred until this faithful Thursday evening after dinner. Uncle Joe and Aunty Nse were absent from dinner again and mama had finished off early so she retired to her room. I sat alone in the dining room struggling with my plate of Jollof Rice. You see, I prefer my jollof rice plain with maybe salad but if you must garnish it with carrots and peas, please be careful not to overcook it. I had eaten jollof rice several times since I moved in but this very day’s own was different. It wasn’t bad but the carrots and peas were overcooked as such giving it a slight bitter taste I didn’t like. I decided to pick them all out so I would be able to eat my rice.
It took some time but finally they were out in a saucer and I finished my meal. As I went to drop my plate, I noticed Ochanya stare at me in a weird way.
“Small Oga, any problem?” she asked from the corner of the kitchen where she blended tomatoes.
“No problem”, I responded and dropped my plates.
It was about 8pm or there about when I overheard aunty Nse yell from downstairs.
“What Non-sense! Who does he think he is?” Came aunty Nse’s voice then murmurs from someone else, my guess was it had to be Ochanya since mama was fast asleep. I walked down to be sure everything was alright.
“Good evening aunty”
“Eh hen… I was just coming to drag you out and ask what this nonsense meant?”
“Any problem?” I asked genuinely.
“Is he serious?” she asked to no one exactly but looking in Ochanya’s direction. It was then I noticed a frightened Ochanya holding a saucer with peas and carrots, it finally dawned on me what this was about. Aunty was upset. She must have thought I was starving myself or not eating well as it was also my mother’s habit to question me whenever she saw remnants in my plate to be sure I was not starving myself.
“It’s not what you think. I finished my rice. I am eating well” I explained exposing both palms as though to illustrate an empty plate. My reply didn’t sit well with Aunty. She looked puzzled and annoyed.
“You think I care if you eat well? If you like don’t eat, just don’t waste my food and tell someone when you don’t want to eat so we won’t bother serving you”. She bellowed, “How can you throw out all these? Do you know what efforts it took to prepare them?” she continued, pointing at the saucer in Ochanya’s hand. “Or you don’t eat carrot and peas?”
“I do” My boyish voice responded.
“then what happened?”
“they were bitter”
“Bitter?” she repeated, “my food is now bitter eh?”
“…First, you waste food, then you go ahead to insult my cooking. Were you not taught manners?”
“I’m sorry ma. The food was nice, the vegetable was just overcooked”
“So you want to teach me how to cook abi?” I was running out of explanations because it seemed Aunty Nse had a way of twisting my replies. I decided not to explain further.
“It will not happen again” I said kneading my palms
“What’s going on here?” It was the voice of uncle Joe. I turned to see mama standing behind him with her eyes trained on me with keen interest as to what was really happening. She was dressed in a black t-shirt that had ‘Jerusalem’ written in a circular form at the part designed for the chest but mama’s sagging breast made it look higher and a wrapper with her hair was tied back in a silk scarf. Suddenly I felt guilty for waking the household. I should have just swallowed those peas and carrots.
“Tell that boy, we don’t waste food in this house. I don’t care where he is coming from” Aunty Nse responded shaking her index finger at me. Uncle Joe just nodded and told me to go to bed. I went upstairs without a second glance as mama followed behind. When I got to my room, I noticed mama was still following and she closed the door behind her. Sitting on the chair beside my bed, she took a deep breath in and out.
“Tell me what happened” she requested
“The vegetable was overcooked. It tasted bitter” I responded, now ashamed of my words. They didn’t make sense again.
“I understand, but you must eat whatsoever is given to you. Don’t select food, adiok. Remember, Uncle Joe and Aunty Nse were kind enough to let you stay here. Don’t make them regret it. Live by their rules”
“…but I have my own house. Why can’t I go home?”
“And live on your own?” mama cut in surprised at my response
“You will stay with me”. I replied sharply but Mama only smiled,
“As old as I am? who will cook and clean after you?” I was going to say I could do it but thought it better to keep quiet as I still found it hard to wash my school uniform.
“So you see why you have to stay here and not make things hard on your uncle and aunty?” she asked with that all knowing gaze.
“Yes mama. I am sorry” She nodded and stood up to leave. After she was gone I could still hear voices from downstairs. Probably Aunty was still reporting me to Uncle. If not for anything else, I had learned to never pick my food again. I sighed and turned to my side silently wishing I had not challenged Aunty’s cooking…
“…But they were just peas and carrots” I whispered into my pillow with my eyes shut.