Idara cleaned her flat every day. People didn’t understand what she meant when she said she cleaned every day. She was sure they imagined her hurriedly adjusting throw pillows, washing dirty plates and perhaps wiping down marble counters before dashing off to prepare for work. Just a few people knew that Idara cleaned every single day; floor scrubbing, washing the blackened bottoms of cooking pots and kettles, dusting couches and appliances. Her sister, Uyai was not quite the same and had moved out to an off campus apartment in Aluu for the sake of her sanity because “I.D no gree me drink water, drop cup! “Use the coaster. Won’t you have a shower first? Have you washed that plate well? Check for garri crusts” I no fit die”. Everyone was rightly shocked when they heard Idara had brought a mad woman into her house.
“I.D! you don baff finish?”
Idara lifted the semi full bucket and poured the remaining water over her body. It was her best part of bathing; a reward of sorts because she found bathing quite the ordeal. She walked into their one room apartment to see her mother singing to her sister as she dressed her.
Her father would return in the evening and play with them, bathe in the communal bathroom, eat dinner and while she pretended to be asleep, she would hear her parents whispering to each other in the hot room as they slapped away at mosquitoes, her mother’s quiet giggle sounding unusually loud in the early morning quiet.
“Sister Idara, is everything alright? I’m worried about you!” Uyai was screeching into the phone. Uyai means beauty. Her parents had obviously known who the prettier child was. She remembered taking Uyai to places or even on errands and watching the way men reacted to her. Her oldest friend, Dubem said “you know how you know a babe is fine? When guys touch their friends and point to you? Eheen”. By his words, her sister was Miss Beauty. She was the one guys stopped, only to say they liked her sister but she told herself repeatedly that she wasn’t jealous. Uyai was still screeching; something about telling their father. She told Uyai to come to her place. Uyai wasn’t coming until the mad woman left.
They had moved into a one bedroom flat and her father’s mother had started to sleep over when she visited. Her parents didn’t whisper to each other when mama visited and their house smelled like her; camphor and old wrappers and fish. She brought them sweets and biscuits from the village. She waited in the parlour for their father every night wasting sticks of candle and then she would whisper to him about his dead father and how he was the only child and how they needed to have a brother.
And when he woke up, he’d seem miles away like he were outside his body and watching parts of himself fight each other for supremacy. Then he would complain about the television being dusty.
Mama would be seating and watching her labor bear fruit. Anticipating.
The mad woman was deep in thought. She was always deep in thought, hand on her chin, head tilted, a faraway look on her face. She smiled faintly whenever Idara walked past.
“What’s your name?”
And then she laughed. Threw her head back, stamping her foot on Idara’s linoleum floor and slapping hard against her couch. When she’d stopped, she wiped the tears from her eyes and said she was hungry.
Her mother hadn’t borne another child. Mama was still hard at work. Now her parents shouted at night. They shouted until her mother cried and mama came in to tell her to stop crying. Did she want the neighbors to hear her? Did she want them to think her son was a wife beater? Uyai cried whenever their mother did. Her father always apologized in the mornings and then they shouted away the apologies every night.
News had come that their mother’s sister was ill and she’d dressed hurriedly and gone to the bus park and taken the bus to Imo state. The house had been locked when she got back. Mama and her father had taken Uyai and her to a new house.
The mad woman was laughing again. It was 3am. Idara was an insomniac, so she told herself it didn’t matter that she hadn’t slept well in three days, just as she told herself that the woman’s laughter did not scare her or that she had not been angry with her father for the past sixteen years.
Mama had been going to the toilet twice a night since her last visit and Idara had been listening. So the second time she went that night, Idara pushed her down the stairs in their new house. Her father slept like Uyai. Logs of wood, the both of them. Mama had screamed, then moaned for a few hours and then quieted. Idara had slept like a baby that night.
She’d told herself mama deserved it. It was mama who had brought Iniobong to their house to “help their father”. It was Iniobong who had been telling the gateman about her mother going mad after she had found out that their father had taken them. Iniobong had borne two more girls, one year apart.
Uyai had come by a week after she’d found the woman and when Idara had said “This might be our mother”, she had laughed and then the old woman had laughed as well like Idara was the joke. Idara was in the habit of self-deceit, but Uyai thought she had gone too far this time. The woman was dark as night and their mother had been their father’s oyibo. Uyai wasn’t convinced Port Harcourt sun did this much discoloration. The more she looked at the woman, the more she felt a chill within, like cold hands gripping her heart and squeezing. She brought out the old picture of their mother she had in her purse and showed her sister.
“It’s not her” she whispered softly.
She’d been buying bole when she saw the woman. She had been washing her clothes by a tap, her body bent at an angle Idara had seen every day for almost her entire childhood singing softly.
“She dey mad?” she’d asked because the woman was washing the only clothes she had, apparently.
“Hmm! Her husband carry her children leave am. She come back one day, fiam! nobody dey house again! Landlord collect key. Na so she craze. This world bad o, aunty!” the woman hissed for effect.
She’d seen how dark the woman was and told herself she was just dirty. She would wash the dirt off and the woman would be her mother. And everything would be the same again.
They took the mad woman to a psychiatric hospital and Uyai insisted Idara see a doctor. It struck Idara that her parents had been wrong about her name, Joy was one thing she might never find.