It’s funny what people will do for money.
She was so alive last night, like she knew I was coming. It was the same as it always has been – the dream. I am a little scrap of a thing running on wobbly legs through the rain. I never could be quite carefree while she watched me with that odd look in her eyes. Questioning and suspicious and tender in an unsettling way. She screams and charges at me with her hand poised above her head, ready to strike; the terror imprisons my tiny body as she approaches and swats a mosquito on my right arm with unnecessary aggression. As I open my mouth to scream, she enfolds me in a fierce embrace and I feel her tears on my cheek. Waking, I am alone and the tears on my cheek are my own.
She is just like I see her in my dreams. It isn’t the hair or the clothes; you expect that from people in her condition. It is the way she looks at me. I am the only thing she really sees; and even then I don’t fit into the plane she lives on. It is the resemblance; I see my lips, my skin beneath the layers of grime; I see me less than two decades down the line give or take a few years I guess, I don’t really know her age. It scares me that she retains some eerie freshness about her. As if the dimension on which her mind has been suspended for so long also preserved her body, her figure is stunning for one her age – whatever that is.
Aunty Rose doesn’t know I’m here; she wouldn’t have approved anyway so it’s just as well she doesn’t. The thought of her busily cooking up some extravagant delicacy to celebrate my homecoming brings a ghost of a smile to my face. I have just returned to Lagos after completing a Master’s programme in England, or at least so they think back home. I’ve been back for a week now, staying with Ifeanyi while I mustered the courage to find the phantom from my dreams.
I grew up with Aunty Rose and her husband whose name I often forget, I just call him Uncle and everyone else calls him Pastor, I don’t really know what Aunty Rose calls him; they barely speak. Their entire marriage seems hinged on unspoken boundaries, shared responsibilities and church activities. I’m not sure how to describe Aunty and Uncle, they’re like my parents even though we are not in any way related. Adopted parents ddoesn’tseem right either; they always made me call them Aunty and Uncle back then when I joined them in fervent prayers to God that they might have a child of their own. Here I guiltily recall pleading with God not to grant their request; in my childish mind I saw myself becoming Cinderella to their own children, should they have any. It was easier being a ward if you were the only one. When I was about thirteen Aunty Rose came to my room one night with a huge smile and a big brown Teddy Bear with glowing eyes and red ribbon around its neck. “You know you are like a daughter to me,” she murmured as she stroked my hair, I nodded wordlessly and lowered my eyes to hide my confusion. Not that she and Uncle weren’t nice but such displays of emotion were foreign to us. I often wondered if she and her husband forgot to have sex as they prayed diligently for children. “I want you to start calling me mummy mmmh? This Aunty thing doesn’t make sense anymore. We are a family,” she continued as if we were in the middle of a nightly routine in which we decided to snuggle, exchange presents and confer honorary titles of ‘father’, ‘mother’ and ‘child’ on each other. I nodded once more and faked a yawn, she took the hint instantly and stuffed the bear into my arms and dropped an awkward kiss on my forehead before leaving my room. I heard her sobbing late into the night as I lay awake next to this odd and slightly terrifying teddy bear she had given me. That was the first night I had The Dream.
Years later I learned that she had come to my room after discovering that a late period she had thought to be a pregnancy symptom was actually the beginning of menopause. We never prayed for a child after that. When I told this story to Claire, my best friend in England, she nearly choked me with an unexpected hug, somewhat reminiscent of the woman in my dreams. “I’m so sorry,” she said tearfully, “I can’t believe they would do that to a child.” I was speechless as she stared at me with pity and horror in her pale blue eyes. “They saw you as nothing but a consolation prize, no one deserves to feel that way,” she wailed and hugged me once more repeating between sobs and sniffs how sorry she was that I had to go through that. I patted her back gently and comforted my dear sweet English friend over a tragedy I never realised was mine.
I’ve been here for almost an hour, my feet are starting to hurt, I wish I knew what to say, how to communicate with this person. Just as I reach out to touch her and say… anything, she gives a loud piercing shriek and runs into the darkening evening. In my fear I stepped back and tripped. I feel hot tears on my face as I watch her receding figure; what was I hoping to see? I am barely conscious of Ifeanyi’s arm as they slip around me, lifting me from the pitiful heap to which I crumpled. I lean into him and give a loud scream of my own, even my voice is hers.
He leads me gently to the car and we drive back to his place. I feel like he says things on the journey home, but I hear nothing; I see nothing but this demented woman that haunts me in my dreams. I see myself in her eyes, an anomaly; the product of what may well have been a perverse ritual between a desperate young man and the poor, mad woman I know I must call mother.
The word pushes itself through my lips before I can stop it, “Mother”.