Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away
Published in the USA by
Published in Nigeria by
Winner of the 2012 Costa First Novel award
Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away
Father was a loud man. His voice entered a room before he did. From my
bedroom window I could hear Father sitting in the wide gardens, or
talking in the car parking area filled with Mercedes, or standing by
the security guardís office, or the gate in front, which had different
signs stuck on it every week:
We lived on Allen Avenue in Ikeja, on the fourth floor of a gated apartment block called, 'Better Life Executive Homes'. I loved watching the street from my window, the traders outside walking up and down the avenue, with brightly coloured buckets and baskets and trays balanced on their heads. They were always shouting: 'Chin-chin, chin-chin' or, 'Flip-flops,' or 'Batteries,' or, 'Schnapps'. Every day, no matter how many days I had looked out of the window during my twelve years, there was something being sold that I had not seen before: shoe-horns, St. Michael's underwear, imported Hello! magazines. I loved watching the women huddled underneath umbrellas, their legs poking out of the bottoms like thick yams. Or the men with necks covered in yellow gold, sitting on the bonnets of their BMWs, and the women wearing Western style clothes hovering around them like stars around the moon. The women visited the boutique dress shops, and all the day the men would go in and out of the bars and Chinese restaurants, one hand always in their pocket ready to pull out some more naira.
Occasionally Mama rushed in and pushed me off the window seat, opening the window wide to let out the cold air and let in the heat, and the smells of the nearby market, of sewerage from the open gutters, the fresh fish, raw meat, akara, puff-puff, and suya. The smells made me feel sick and hungry at the same time. 'Don't look at those men,' Mama would say. 'I wish they would go to some other place to spend their money.'
But there was no other place. Allen Avenue was the richest road in Ikeja, with the most shops. If you had money to spend, Allen Avenue was where you spent it. And if you were even richer, like us, then you lived there. On Allen Avenue every house or apartment had a generator. The hum they made was constant day or night. Roads surrounded us that had no electricity at all, where people went to bed as soon as night fell and according to my brother Ezikiel, produced too many babies. But Allen Avenue was brightly lit. People left their televisions and radios on loud all night, to show how much money they could afford to waste.
'Hey, hey you! I need soaps.'
'Best quality soap. Anti-germ. Very fine, good for skin. Will smooth you and sooth you, Mama. Very famous soap. Imported from U.S.'
Mama waved her hand up and down as the tall woman with the blue and white plastic bowl full of soaps walked slowly towards the security gate. She did not rush. Nobody did. Even when the other hawkers realised that Mama was buying soap. That she had money to spend. They looked up at the window and shouted out the contents of their bowls or baskets or trays: Oranges, Pure Water, Bush Meat, Alarm Clock, Petticoats, Gucci Handbags.
But from where I was sitting, I did not need them to shout.
I could see everything.
Father worked as an accountant for an office full of government ministers in central Lagos, and had to leave the apartment very early in the morning to miss the worst of the go-slow. Ezikiel woke up extra early to see Father before he left for work, even though he was fourteen years old and not a morning person. He liked to sit on Father's side of his bed next to his neatly laid out work clothes, and watch him dress, pass him his tie, cufflinks, and wristwatch. Mama would tut loudly into her pillow before swinging her long legs out of the bed as Father whistled and teased her. It is like sleeping next to a handful of needles, he would say, sharp and bony, poking me through the night. Mama would tut even louder, and sometimes suck her teeth. She too was not a morning person.
We all had breakfast together. Father ate Hot Food Only, but luke-warm, which made his Hot Food Only rule seem silly. Ezikiel and I ate cereal, or rolls with jam that Mama had stolen from her job at the Royal Imperial Hotel. After dressing in her work uniform of navy blue skirt and white blouse, and painting her lips with a tiny paintbrush, Mama would make Father's coffee, extra sweet with warmed condensed milk. Then she would kiss Father on the mouth. Sometimes twice. After kissing Mama, Father would have the same red colour on his lips and make us laugh by pretending to have the voice of a woman. Father laughed the loudest. He always laughed at breakfast time, until he had a mouthful of food, or until our neighbour, who did not begin work until nine am, banged on the wall with his knuckles.
After Father and Mama had left for work, Ezikiel and I walked to the International School for Future Leaders, which had floors so shiny I could see my reflection in them. My best friend Habibat and I liked to sit by the fountain at lunchtime and take off our shoes and socks, dipping our feet into the cool water. Ezikiel liked the clubs and societies: Chess society, Latin club, Science club. But we both liked school. We liked the marble floors, cool air-conditioning, and wide running field that seemed to stretch forever.
It was nearly night outside when Father arrived home. My window was shut; the air-conditioning was on full, but still, I could hear his footsteps on the path, his slamming the door, and his key in the lock. Ezikiel jumped up from where he had been reading on my bed, knocking his textbook onto the floor where it opened at a page that had a picture of a man with no skin showing his insides, and arrows pointing to the different bits inside him: descending colon, duodenum, liver.
Father's footsteps thudded across the hallway before the door burst open. 'Kids, where are you? Where are you trouble kids?'
Mama hated Father calling us kids.
Father loosened his necktie as Ezikiel and I rushed over and followed him to the parlour.
'I came top in the spelling test, and the teacher said I am the best at Latin. The best heís ever taught.' Ezikiel was breathless from talking too fast. His nostrils were flaring.
I moved closer to Ezikiel's back. Even though Ezikiel was only two years older than me he was already a whole head higher. My eyes were level with the bony part at the bottom of his neck. I could not see Father drop to his knees, but I knew that he had. He knelt every day so that we could climb onto his shoulders, a shoulder each, and he would lift us to the ceiling, and throw us into the air. He was always in a good mood when he first returned home.
Father stood slowly, pretending to wobble and almost drop us, but I knew how strong he was. Ezikiel had told me that heíd seen Father lift the car with only one hand, so that Zafi, our driver, could change the wheel.
We laughed and laughed on Fatherís shoulders, tickling behind his ears. The laughter flew around the room like a hungry mosquito. My own laughter was loud in my ears. I could barely hear Mama.
'Get them down, for goodness sake; they are not babies any more. You'll damage your back!' Mama came out of her bedroom wearing a dressing gown and red eyes. 'It's dangerous!'
Mama had never liked us to sit on Fatherís shoulders, even when we were younger. She said that she did not like the idea of us falling, of having to catch us, but I was sure that she did not want us to know about the top of her head where her weave had been pulled tight and left a patch of bald, or the high up shelf where she kept a tin of liquorice, and a photograph album that we were not meant to see.
Suddenly, Ezikiel's wheeze appeared. It was louder than the television showing a Nollywood film. It was louder than the hum of the generators. It was louder than Father's laughter. Ezikiel's body straightened and he banged his head on the ceiling. I grabbed onto his arm.
'See what happens,í said Mama, rushing forwards.
Father dropped to his knees, and I jumped off, and stood back as Ezikiel slumped over. He was already coughing and hitting the front of his chest. His breaths were coming quickly, and out of time. Mama dropped down, sitting behind Ezikiel, holding his back with her arm. The redness had disappeared from her eyes and jumped into Ezikiel's.
'Quick,' she shouted at Father, who was getting to his feet. Mama stroked Ezikiel's hair, whispering into his ear, rocking his body back and forth, back and forth.
In one movement, Father opened the sideboard drawer and pulled out a blue inhaler, flipped the cap off, and passed it to Mama who stuck it into Ezikiel's mouth, and pressed the top twice.
The inside of Ezikiel's bottom lip was blue.
'Get the paper bag on the kitchen top, quickly.' Mama pressed the inhaler again. She continued to rock.
I ran to the kitchen. The brown bag on the kitchen top was full of peppers. I looked around for another. My eyes could not work fast enough. They zoomed around the kitchen but everything had become blurry. I could hear the rasping of Ezikiel's breaths, and I could feel Mama's panic in my neck.
There was no other bag. What should I do? I had twelve years; I was old enough to know that peppers should be treated carefully. I looked at them. They were unbroken. I took a long breath, and a chance that their pepperyness had not seeped out, emptied the bag, and ran back.
Ezikiel was slumped over his inhaler, Mama was behind him holding him up, and Father was behind her holding her up. Father had his arms wrapped around both of them. When I ran towards him he pulled me into his arms, too.
Mama grabbed the brown paper bag from my hand and placed it over Ezikiel's nose and mouth. It took a few seconds before the red trees in his eyes grew branches, and his tears fell like tiny leaves onto the bag. He pushed the bag away.
Mama leant forward and smelled the bag.
Mama gave me a look that said, 'Stupid girl.'
I said nothing.
Father leaned towards Mama, and stroked her face where her frown line cut into her forehead. 'He'll be fine,' Father said, in his loud voice that sounded so sure Mama's frown line became less deep. His arm tightened around my back.
Father was right. He was always right. Ezikielís breathing slowly improved. The trees disappeared and the wheeze quietened. Mama sniffed the bag, then put the bag back over his nose and only took it away to puff some more of his inhaler in. Ezikiel's breathing became more regular and equal, his skin no longer being tugged into his throat. I watched Ezikiel's nostrils until they were flat once more, against his face, and his skin change colour slowly from daylight, to dusk, to night.
Father was a loud man. I could hear him shouting from the neighbours' apartment where he argued about football with Doctor Adeshina, and drank so much Remy Martin that he could not stand up properly. I could hear him singing when he returned from the Everlasting Open Arms House of Salvation Church, on a bus that had the words, 'Up Jesus Down Satan' written on the side. The singing would reach my ears right up on the fourth floor. From my window I watched the bus driver and Pastor King Junior carry Father towards the apartment because he could not stand up at all.
If Father did stand up, it was worse. He seemed to have no idea how to move around quietly, and when he did try, after Mama said her head was splitting in two, the crashing became louder.
We were so used to Father's loud voice that it became quieter. Our ears changed and put on a barrier like sunglasses whenever Father was at home. So when we left for market early on Saturday morning and we knew Father was out working all day on some important account at the office, our ears did not need their sunglasses on. And when Mama realised she had forgotten her purse, and we had to turn back, our ears were working fine. I heard the chatter of the women at market, the traffic and street traders along Allen Avenue, and the humming of the electric gate to let us back into the apartment building. I heard our footsteps on the hallway carpets, and Mama's key in the front lock. I heard the cupboard door open when Ezikiel and I went straight for the biscuits.
And then I heard the most terrible, loudest noise I had ever heard in my life.
My switched on ears hurt. I tried to put the glasses on them, to switch them down, to turn them off. Father must have been home; I could hear him shouting.
Father was a loud man.
But it was Mama who was screaming.