No Better Hell than Home!
By Clarius Ugwuoha (Nigeria)
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NO BETTER HELL THAN HOME!
I return home every morning from selling akara in the streets. Then I take my bath and swing my satchel bag, through the winding, narrow lane to the nearby school. This is routinely – doing what other children do, and then having to discover that there is no better escape from that hell I know as my home. I read little or no meaning into the dusty gathering by the assembly ground, the chanting in the classrooms and fighting and settling quarrels and being punished. Again I think of the classes, the pale orange smile on our teacher’s face, his long, ochre whip that swings high, his rhythmic movements as he teaches - we are never innocent, like corns in a gathering of fowls. And then I think of - dread it – HOME! With both parents alive, I know what it is to be an orphan in an uncaring world.
In the evening, when I come back from the school, I am confronted by the spectacle of violence. There is mother spending her fury – she’s always in a mood and fury these days – upon my sibling, John. Then I hear the distorted conversation one day. John taking it no more has burst:
“Mother, why do you beat me like this. What really have I done?”
And to my surprise, mother replies:
“Why then do you beat me?”
“You resemble him – that devil”
Then John bursts in tears and I follow. That devil is my father. I am to take my share of her beating and tirade, not even that I resemble him too but that someone has to be beaten and fury has to be spent.
Don’t ever have this experience where home is described as somewhere mother is battered by an angry father, who staggers in from a drinking bout at dead of night; and mother in turn visits on you and siblings with all verve; where day breaks with discord and dusk sleeps hungry over the deserted hearth. Mine is worse than these, a small hell build around squalor in the reaches of District village.
Ours is a family of five – my father, Mr. George Chiana, whom we refer to as just father; my mother, whose name I cannot fathom anyway since she just enter our consciousness as mama, and it is forbidden to call our parents by name; my siblings John and Chiaka, the youngest. Father owns the doorway, and mama, in his absence, is so fierce that we cringe as she passes by, our back taut in expectation of a blow. Sometimes I would wonder if they – my parents – are indeed our parents, what devil has scarred their lives so deeply that all love and warmth towards us are worn.
Mama is the victim of the worst of domestic discord. I have seen her beaten to a coma with long koboko whips; punched deep below the temple with iron-cast fists so that she has bruises and has to visit the chemist for days. I have seen mother nurse her world in a pathetic corner, while father is uncaring and drinking whisky and - something he never did at normal times – smoking and puffing the fumes with special interest and life.
But it has not always been like this. The earliest I know of home is of a very warm and united family with mother always cheerful and telling us stories – stories of tortoise and the spirit world; and I have grown up with these stories as real – and father, whose stern visage is mellowed down by a smile now and then as he returns from his daily rounds, hugs us and retires with mother in the sitting room. We do not see much of father, because he works onshore with a multinational company. But the days he is with us are an admixture of joy and love. He buys us all manner of gifts. And I remember that we – my siblings and I - use to quarrel over whose is the better.
My first notion of the semblance of discord in the family is of mother sitting up late into the night and snorting her teary grief, and of sometimes sitting still, her eyes fixed on the unknown and suddenly kneeling to and addressing invisible powers. As a child, I have no explanation for this, except that she has arguments with father and comes off worse with each, and that her manner by everyone has taken a turn, if I may say, for the worse.
I wake up one morning. She is not within. For many more days I will not see her. Father will try to explain; I will sting with confusion and grief, not truly understanding this adult world, this living with red-hot affections that grow cold in the memory. I try to recapture her warmth that has surrounded me….
Then, suddenly she is back, if I may say, with a vengeance. Home is living hell. I long to be away from it all, from the madness let loose upon that home by the very same people who have made it glow with love. It is a puzzle I find difficult to grasp. Then I discover.
Father’s mistress is the matter.
She is tall, fat but pretty. She visits our house, a friend and cousin of my mother’s for that matter. When words first go round that he is having an affair with her, mother does not believe it and always dismisses as bad gossip, tales from friends who confess to having seen Uchechi, the cousin, with father at suggestive places. That is until my mother sees for herself. So deep and thorough is the shock, that mother loses all affection for my siblings and me who have nothing to do with these. When, on a bright orie market day, the mistress of a woman visits our house for good, her belly high, her luggage in a neat bundle, I know that there can be no better hell than home!
But I am lucky as a student to be bright and to earn a scholarship to a secondary school, which then sets me off from home. I have the option of having to live in the boarding school or to trek the two-hour narrow lane to Mowete town where District College situates. I do not hesitate, of course, in my choice of dorm life as we call it. My premise is that whatever the stories of the older students who’ve tasted of its bitter experiences, it is in fact not to be compared with my home.
Against the rough, dusty lane, Mowete is serene. It sits on the crest of a hill and oversees the neighbourhood like a lord. The bus pulls up to a gate, to an elderly man who grins his welcome and whom we are to later know simply as the gateman.
The school is a rust of five bungalows. As we are herded to our temporary hostels, shouts of toads rend the air. I cannot give much thought to this as I am overwhelmed by the fact that I have left the terror called home. Dormitory master comes to welcome us. He is a middle-aged man, seems to understand and pats us on the back with endearing words.
I am sorry that not long after, we are to get him cross, in circumstances not our making and get the hiding of our early years.
That night, we are awakened to the existence of a new, monstrous cabal I will later liken to my father and prefer his outburst. This I think is the baptism of fire. We are belaboured on our buttocks with whips plucked from the nearby hibiscus flowers. These are limberly and have a way of lingering for days. The pain simply hangs suspended like an offensive cloud. It reaches your bones and marrow; it touches at a chord in your soul. And what is our offence? I do remember. A senior as students in higher classes are called, has entered our hall and we are without our manners by seniors. Who has taught us?
I am sour this morning. The assembly is attended by all and sundry. I am to see the head teacher for the first time. He has a tall burly frame and draws from the deep well of knowledge within him as he speaks. In the mirror he wields, I can size up the entire school. He recites the ugly manners of the dormitories, tilts at the denseness of some of us who cannot justify their entrance to a school as prestigious as this, steal into the town at dead of night and mix with its rot and decay. He has facts and figures to justify his tirade. I am astounded that a mere twelve-year old is caught behind the college garden puffing a wrap of Indian hemp. He is herded to the wooden dais from off which the assembly heard the Principal. Straight and unrepentant in his stiff khaki shorts he takes a dozen lashes on his back without a wince, to a heavy round of applause from among the students. A visibly miffed teacher takes the centre stage, shouting to cuff us to silence, and long after we have, he is caught adrift in a long and conspicuous stammer. I look closer to see that it is our friend of the hostels. Every vein is strung on his face as he trails off. Silence versus stammering voice becomes an embarrassing duel. A naughty senior boy causes a round of applause to be raised, wave behind wave until the stammering voice is shut out.
What I remember next is that we are caught in a whirl of limberly canes. God, is this what school is all about? I regret home.
Cane is not all. We work in the school garden all day till our palms blister and the sore waters spill and the palms blister all over. For days I am unable to grip even my cutlery.
Due to my illness characterized by high fever, I lie in bed long after it is time for the morning assembly. Two senior students strut in on their round of errant students who hide in the dormitories during the morning assembly.
“What does this one think he’s doing here?” barks one of the seniors I have come to know simply as Biggie. He is tall, and fat, a terror of a sort, the acting prefect of Lonord group of hostels. He looks irritable as he carelessly yanks off the bedspread I have covered myself with.
“Fever? You think you can just come here sleeping about! Get-up! Here’s hostel, not a sick bay, no sleeping idiots, no toad’s sickness, get up and about the assembly at once! “ He has grown in pitch. I smart under a crack of whips, duck another, and swing out and in the next moment, I am outside the hostel building shivering, my teeth chattering uncontrollably. Biggie’s companion is one of bold disquiet, unable to understand the callousness of his colleague.
“ What cruelty is that?” I hear him say, “ See him shivering, weal on his body!” And they exchange a word more or two, Biggie shouting, mainly swear words and not understanding his colleague either. His companion leads me by the hand, away from Biggie’s reach, and towards the sick bay. “ You will see the chemist, and tell him how you feel. He will know what to do. You can then approach the dormitory master, and apply for exit to go home”.
I do exactly as he says. Before the hostel master with my exit application letter in hand, I pray to be let go; and if I am, that may be the last of me in District College. I will probably not return. I will run to a world where everything is easy, and even though I know none exists, the worse of all – my home, it gives a new lease of life to my tortured mind.
The hostel master turns my letter up and down in scrutiny, feels my body with the back of his palm. Then the bomb…
“You can’t go. It’s common nostalgia; you are here only last week? You will get over it!” He pats me on the back. “You can go to the sick bay and let me get report of improvement”.
He looks friendly, but for no apparent reason, I am frightened of him. I have not forgotten the stiff penalties of working and working till my palms blistered.
I leave his presence in confusion. I will sink into the dormitory and explain to every whip-wielding senior that I am sick, that I cannot sweep my portion of the expansive compound; that I cannot cut the grass on labor mornings or cleanse the toilet on Saturdays. I will explain that I am unable to attend the morning devotions or evening prayers. This is an uphill task. Many junior students, in their attempt to avoid unpleasant works or duties, perfect plans on how to outwit the detractors. Thus, on labor mornings, half of them have temperature, the rest have their ankles sprained and leap about with utmost care. It did not matter that only a minute ago, they are prancing about like a fish that has seen new water. In that wise, it is difficult to prove that one is convincingly sick before the senior students.
At night, on my confused bed, I will ponder on what has become of home. It is predictable. I think the worse shall have come to pass. Father’s mistress, pregnant for father, shall have given birth to a baby boy or girl, shall have colonized the household. I try to rationalize father's choice of a second wife against the backdrop of male and female children from the first and abundant care and love - yes, I am aware as a child – from my mother. The mistress is fat, talks too much, and quarrels and fights with visitors, and drinks too! She stinks of whisky at dawn, is so irritable that her mere presence fills me with restless foreboding, as it does my mother who, on several occasions, has to force quarrels. I try to put myself in father’s shoes and understand why he has to drive a heavy knife through the warmth and love of the family, by the singular act of not only keeping a mistress but also seeking a child from her – and marriage. Is it just something men did and which did not admit of explanations – like the senior students belaboring us mercilessly without reason or with the flimsiest excuses and later claiming that it is the norm, that there is no bitterness to it? I am baffled. I despair of this overwhelming image of mother, her face suffused with tears and kneeling and imploring forces I cannot see. Will father have mercy? Will the mistress go? Will peace return to the household?
I smuggle a letter out to my sibling, John. I tell him I am sick of it all and that I want to return home to its squabble and deprivations. I tell him I want to give up the struggle to be someone in life. In fact I ring of desperation at its worst. I expect John’s reply to be pessimistic too. But he is one of hope and optimism, even as he is frank and merciless over the condition at home:
“ You cannot come home now,” he writes “ The devil has no better place than here. I shall not disconcert you by letting you on to all that happen at home. But we are here with hope because you are there….”
His terse letter only increases my longing for home. I will compare my father to the senior students who just belabor us because it is the norm. While I condemn the unbecoming manners of the senior students today, chances are that when I reach the senior classes, I will herd the junior ones out in the shivering cold harmattan, pull back their shorts and flog them to my hearts content. Chances are that I will cease to feel the pain of yesterday, I will call the junior ones toad and other offensive terms, appropriate their money and belongings, ease myself in the wrong places and insist the junior students mop them up, soil my wears deliberately and get a toad to wash them and later thank me for giving him my clothes to wash! In the same vein, I will probably do worse than father at then, put a mistress in the family way, keep her in the house, unperturbed by the pain and agony of a wife who has shared love with me and who has done nothing to be thus compensated.
This crude realization of our bestial subjectivity stuns me. I will argue and argue with myself for days.
Months go by and finally a year. I am to return to District Village for the holiday with so many new manners and stories. I will mix with my old peerage. We will drum on our water pots to the nearby stream; pluck the apple trees that are now in full season. I remember only the warm, rosy memories of District Village. Back of my mind, though, is the premonition of worse conflicts at home.
But I do not reckon with what I come to grasps with. I peer at her as though shortsighted. I cannot recognize the woman before me. John my sibling says it’s our mother. Our mother? The woman who cradle me on her tender laps as a child? Her face is scarred with pain; a machete cut freshly healed is just shy of the left eye. She bends double as with unseen loads and the voice is so thin you will think another speaks through her.
“ She came back from the hospital a month ago,” says John. “Father beat her to pulp, with machete cuts”.
“She drove Uchechi and her child”
“And where is father?”
“We do not know. He left with her”
There is a heavy, sticky silence.
“ She cannot lead a normal life again,” continues John “ So says the doctor. Her left arm is shattered, held by just a hair-thin nerve. Her speech is impaired and she lacks proper coordination. We have sold everything in the house to offset the hospital bill….”
Only now do I look round to absorb my surrounding: The TV set, the upholstered chairs, the rugs, even the curtains on the wall...are all gone. It surprises me that I have been so carried away by concern for the old woman – sorry, my mother – that I have not SEEN the house.
With such glaring conquest, father is only away, enjoying a new life, and not being held by any law. It is certain that he is still leading a normal life and my mother, myself and siblings are only appendages of his after-thoughts. No laws here can get to him. When you have the money, you are a god among men.
“What shall we do?” I ask John, my sibling. He is younger but wise with the years.
“ We are orphans with both parents alive,” says he “ and our home an orphanage. We cannot redress our mother’s grievances. Our father is like the hurtful fly that perches on the crouch, where blows that may harm the one destroy the other.”
“What shall we do then?” I repeat
“ Simple. Take care of our mother and learn to live!”
It rolls over in my mind… take care of our mother and learn to live… learn to live as orphans. I think that is what he means … I shall return to school when it is time. I shall endure the canes and tirades and works. No better hell than home. I must return to school, to find the path that leads to a better HOME!