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Better Be Neutral 



By Ohikhuare Isuku



Monday, September 4, 2017.


It was that bright November afternoon Oshiomhole was declared winner of the Edo state gubernatorial poll in the Court of Appeal that Kayode died. Kayode was the only son of Madam Patricia who lived in the next flat. Though very young then – about ten – I could describe him completely because before my family and his had that quarrel, he used to play with me and my little sister, Iweoje, any evening he was around. He was not tall, but his chest was broad. He was certainly not a teenager; he should be a year or two above twenty. Our mother used to tease him that because of his completely dark skin, if he were to be lost at night, it would be difficult for even the hunters to fish him out of the night. He laughed anytime Mama said this; his broad chest shook vigorously, and if he had already clasped us to it, we vibrated with the chest.


“Put my children down,” Mama would yell playfully from our veranda, “don’t stain them with your black.”


Their flat was the first you would meet if you were coming from the street. A wall separated our apartment from theirs and their gated veranda from our own gated veranda. His mother – Madam Patricia – owned a shop along the street where our primary school was located; where Mama taught Class Three.


Madam Patricia was dark but not as his son. She was moderately built unlike my slim mother. She laughed easily before the quarrel: a laughter which revealed how deep her dimples were. If someone told me then there would be a time I would no longer see her laugh, I would call that person a liar. My mother called her mummy because her long hair had started to develop silver lines.


On Sundays, when she was at home, Iweoje and I would stay in their apartment because it was far more superior to ours. Unlike our parlour with three old black sofas whose coverings had nearly peeled off, revealing the brown foam they were made of, theirs were new mahogany sofas that threw you off when you bounced on them; theirs was glass centre-table – perfectly round with flower vase underneath – unlike our old wooden square centre-table which had the burn of pressing iron at its middle.  They had flat Plasma TV glued to their wall unlike our old Sharp TV arranged on its stand against the wall that separated our flat from their flat; TV Papa would sometimes beat angrily when it went blank.  Madam Patricia’s dining room was not as empty as ours on which its neat tiles we slept when our rooms were too hot; their dining room had a large mahogany table with chairs having basket-like rests. There was a huge white fridge by the rear wall just dodging the only door in the dining room. Madam Patricia kept a lot of soft drinks in it. When she was in a good mood – and she always was – she gave us some to drink.

Madam Patricia had no husband that I knew of. I heard the Ghanaian man who fathered her two children – Kemi and Kayode – ran away to his country when they were still suffering in Lagos. Her shop by our school road was the largest in the neighbourhood. She sold clothes for children and women of all ages. Because her shop was always busy, she came back at dusk with her leather bag slung across her shoulder. Then she would crawl like a snail to the backyard where Mama would be preparing supper under the Acacia tree.

                                                           ***

I knew when this quarrel began to take root. It was the previous year before the general elections in April. And I quite remember Madam Patricia had emotional ties with the party – Action Congress – because Oshiomhole was its flag-bearer.  She saw Oshiomhole as a god, as a white linen without any stain.


“You know this great man fought Obasanjo to his kneel when he was the Labour leader.” She would always raise her voice jovially above that of Mama anytime she was trying to convince her about her choice. Mama was supporting PDP’s Osunbor because they were both from the same town.

“Do not trust a politician, Mummy.” Mama would reply. “Oshiomhole would still misbehave like Igbinedion when he climbs power.”

“Let us see who will win then between AC and PDP.”

They laughed over their tiny political arguments as if they were nothing, as if in time, these arguments would not rise high and engulf us all; stuffing our mouths with rheum we would be unable to sneeze off.


Few months to the election, our compound became ignited with political activities. It was Madam Patricia that started it: when she hosted AC women in our narrow but long compound – between the wall of our house and the fence mildewed by green spirogyra. Madam Patricia brought out white plastic chairs for them to sit down. They sat facing her, leaning on the red gate which secured her veranda. That Sunday evening, she preached vehemently to the women about their roles in bringing a saint to power. Her voice was firmer, and it gave her an extra aura of dignity. Sweat formed on her forehead and trickled through the ridge of her nose on which she had pegged her medicated eye lenses. After the meeting, she whispered into the ears of young women in the gathering. They smiled as they filed into her flat. The women wore wrapper of varied design and a T-shirt with Oshiomhole’s head sagging across their breasts. Not long, they began to bring out canned soft drinks and the rest women outside bellowed, “Aye ye ye! Aye!”


Mama and I were inside our veranda watching the young women distribute the drinks as the feathers of the night flailed towards us from the east. It was around dusk the meeting ended with a closing prayer from a woman whose voice quavered as if she had already broken down in tears. The orange bulb attached to the lintel of our veranda gave its light. Before some of the women left, they came to greet Mama where we sat. But it was after Madam Patricia had pointed playfully to Mama saying, “You see this woman here shall soon be of help to our great party.”  Mama tightened her mouth into a comic knot and smiled.


Mama was not angry that Madam Patricia brought her party people to our compound and even went as far as blocking the way that led to our veranda. After all, she told me that a week before now, Madam Patricia had been made the AC women leader of the neighbourhood. But I knew if my father were around, he would have frowned. My father was a police inspector who worked at Warri. He was home once in two weeks. He had never spoken well of Madam Patricia. In fact, when he came around, Madam Patricia would be the one to come and greet him, though she was by far older than him. One day, after Madam Patricia had left our parlour, he whispered to Mama that she needed to be careful the way she associated with Madam Patricia. I was in the hallway – beside our light blue curtain which rose and fell. I thought Mama would say something to express her disapproval as she had always done. Rather, it was a still silence which took over. Not even a hum came from her. The silence was cold and choking.

                                                          ***

So when Mama’s Party made her chairlady of the neighbourhood, everyone knew trouble was brewing in the compound. But Mama and Madam Patricia saw this as a way of strengthening their contest. Even that day the fat party people came to install Mama as the Party’s Chairlady of the neighbourhood – men with protruded stomachs clad in heavy robes and large women with buba and wrapper whose faces sweated because of the fiery heat of the orange afternoon – Madam Patricia came to congratulate Mama after the convoy of the big politicians had disappeared from our compound.

“Well deserve!” She told Mama, “Make good use of the opportunity and prove your worth for what you support.” She then followed with a genuine smile or so I thought. Mama told her thank you, and thereafter let her know she would not really be active as a party leader because it was not her calling.


But everyone knew why the PDP chieftains made Mama who seldom attended meetings the chairperson of our neighbourhood: it was to spite Madam Patricia who had become so famous with her frequent meetings in our compound: meetings which had won many hearts and made them loyal. Later on, we would discover there was another cunning reason why Mama’s party people had done what they did: the same reason which tore into pieces the robe of peace in our compound forever.


Mama new position obviously changed our lives positively. Few weeks after she was made chairperson of the entire neighbourhood, we had new sofas in our parlour. They were green sofas with backrests like thrones. Our dining-room was no longer empty; there were now a large mahogany table and chairs arranged around it.  We met our flat this way when we returned from school. But Mama just passed into the hallway as if she did not notice what had stunned me and little Iweoje. I did not ask her how the sofas appeared in our parlour or who had set the brown mahogany table and chairs in the dining0room; even if I had asked her, Mama would not have told me. Later, I would get to hear where the furniture came from in the evening; when the party men came to our flat and Mama knelt down to thank them like a beggar.

“You should not thank us,” a large man who should be the leader of the emissary had said to Mama, “we should thank you for making us so popular in this neighbourhood.”


Mama stood up and offered them wine. They drank and laughed at the same time. Their gullets shook. Not long, the leader of the emissary beckoned on Mama to come closer to him. He whispered into her ears and she dilated her eyes. Before they left at dusk, two boys brought in a deep freezer which looked like a box and flat screen TV like the one in Madam Patricia’s parlour, except that this one was wider and the back colour was silver instead of black. While one of the boys with coverall fixed the TV against the wall which separated our flat from Madam Patricia’s flat, the other boy arranged the deep freezer at the corner of the dining room. The Sharp TV was disposed off to the storeroom along the hallway. I would later hear the smooth sound of a generator and then see bulbs flashed on and the flat screen TV brought out its light.


These changes in our home shocked me instead of making me excitement.  I couldn’t believe that in a while, our dungeon like home could transform into a paradise. Before the two boys left, they switched off the deep freezer that hummed softly in the dining room and the flat screen TV in the parlour. They taught Mama how she could put off the generator if we wanted to sleep. I left the hallway after their footsteps had died off and journeyed to veranda. It was beneath the veranda the generator was placed.


There was a brown Audi car beside our veranda whose windscreen reflected the full moon at the peak of the sky. The breeze cooed over the vegetation beyond our fence mildewed with spirogyra. The sky was so clear; you could think we were in November. I believed one of the big politicians owned the Audi and might have left it because it had developed some fault.


It was that same night my father came. I was already dozing off on the bench in the veranda, when I perceived his odour of Rothmans.  I would have heard his footsteps first if not for the sound of the generator.


“Ifidon!” He called me briskly, as if I had offended. “I am back.”

The sleep disappeared at once, like spirit exposed to air. I grabbed his bag and dragged it inside with all my strength. My father ate on the dining table and no matter how I tried to find the puzzlement in his countenance; I couldn’t catch a glimpse of it. He behaved as if the changes which had occurred in our home were known to everyone but me; as if the three sofas and flat screen TV had been in the parlour ever since my birth, as if barely a day ago, this dining room he was eating in now was not bare. But the furniture of the parlour and dining room was little compared to the big surprise I would meet at dawn – that the red Audi parked outside our flat, which I thought belonged to one of the big politicians, was ours.

I met my father beside the car at dawn, smiling and giggling; soothing the roof of the vehicle with his wide palm as if he were cleaning it. Mama was sweeping the frontage at the farthest part of the compound. She occasionally rose up, bit her lips and then smiled at the car slightly like a shy bride. When Madam Patricia and our best friend – Kayode – hurried out excitedly, my father left the frontage into our flat, barely replying their greetings. But they knew his weird attitude towards them, so they geared the happiness towards Mama.


“I heard this is your car,” Madam Patricia said to Mama. She was still admiring the Audi whose body had been covered by the dew of dawn.

“Mummy, we give all the glory to God.”

“We shall celebrate this one.”

“I will drink beer to start with,” our friend – Kayode – said to Mama and smiled. He had only a short on – a brown short creased all over while his mother tied her black wrapper above her breast, leaving her shoulders bare. The skin around her eyes had turned dark due to ageing, but my father believed that she had those dark spots around her eyes as a relic to her transformation into an owl at night. He told Mama one night he visited, but Mama just hummed to throw off the argument like a waste into a trash can.

                                                          ***

It was one Saturday, few weeks to the election that trouble erupted flames in our compound which burnt our peace; burnt our friendship, our love and warmth and threw the ash off to the wind. I remember it was evening, and as it had been for the past weeks, women from PDP gathered in front our veranda while AC women gathered in front of Madam Patricia’s veranda – only separated by a thin line created by the wall which separated our veranda from her veranda.


It was Mama – as a leader she had perfectly fitted into – who moderated the PDP women with daunting voice while someone else apart from Madam Patricia that spoke for the other wing. That was why the quarrel came in the first place – because Madam Patricia was not in the gathering. If she had moderated, she would not have dogged Mama’s speech so offensively as that woman had done or spat on Mama’s face when Mama cautioned the woman this was her compound. And when the thunderous quarrel and fighting were brimming, Madam Patricia would have done all she could to bring everyone’s nerve down.


Madam Patricia hurried into the scene far too late: when Mama had bitten the saucy woman’s upper lip off; when the white plastic chairs had been flung here and there – majority destroyed. I caught the disappointment in her eyes; the shame which beclouded her eyeballs.

She went to Mama who sat on the threshold of our front door and asked her, “Why didn’t you prevent this?”

“You should ask the women you sent to gang up against me.”  Mama’s forehead was swollen. Her reply shocked me, shocked Madam Patricia, shocked Kayode who was leaning dejectedly on the mildewed fence, directly facing their veranda.

Madam Patricia was silent for a while as if she doubted Mama’s response. When she spoke a while later, it was thunderous. I shook where I sat on the veranda. Mama jumped up and replied hotly and Iweoje began to cry inside the parlour. She too must have felt the love and warmth being burnt as the quarrel gained tempo. And as Kayode pulled his mother away from our veranda - like me - Iweoje must have felt the mutual trust between Madam Patricia’s family and our family being pulled away, although she may not have known it would be forever.


Our father returned that night with the Audi. He had cleverly dodged broken chairs to park in front of our compound. He met me on the veranda – tears caked in my eyes. My lips were too heavy to utter a word of greeting to him. Later at night, after his meal of pounded yam and bitterleaf soup, Mama narrated all that had happened to him.  In his mischievous response, not even the wall which separated our flat from Madam Patricia’s flat could conceal it, “did I not tell you earlier she is a witch?”

There was complete silence: footsteps moved in the other flat; a curse was uttered and a plate came crashing on the ground. I froze once again on the sofa – the one which directly faced the wall which separated our flat from Madam Patricia’s flat.


So when INEC proclaimed Osunbor as the winner of the governorship election, Mama danced openly outside just to spite Madam Patricia. She danced and sang close to the Audi and when her wrapper almost fell; she held it to her chest and continued to dance. Madam Patricia was inside and I supposed Kayode was too, but none of them came out to the veranda, not when the overbearing sun went into its deep vale behind the clouds, nor when a new day revealed itself through dawn and flew again into its rest. Madam Patricia did not come out for many days, yet we knew she was inside – in her flat – because the glass panes of her window were flung open and its blue curtain slightly raised and tightened into a huge knot.  No one visited her – the same way no one visited Mama to thank or congratulate her for her efforts in the campaign. At last when Mama warmed up to this realization, she confessed that the big politicians had used and dumped her like a rag not even fit for the floor.


“They are bastards!” Mama mouthed on our veranda few days after the election, looking vacantly over the fence. “I was a fool all along.”


By the time Madam Patricia began to come out, she had shrunk into something without relevance, like some old nut buried in the mud. Her eyes were bloodshot with anger, and they were always directed downwards as if she were searching for something she would never find. Even after the quarrel, Madam Patricia answered my greetings, when Mama was not around to show me the entire white of her eyes.  But that changed after the election result. Mama Patricia did not reply my greeting nor look in my direction with her choking countenance. The same countenance she wore when we saw her on TV leading other women with bare breasts, as they protested in the Government House. Mama hissed when she saw her; her hissing was not harsh but glided through her mouth for a long time  and then said at the end of it all, “these politicians don’t deserve your stress, Mummy.”


That bright November afternoon Oshiomhole was declared winner at the Court of Appeal, it was Madam Patricia’s turn to dance and sing, outside her veranda, on the bare sand. Not only her danced and sang, about a dozen women occupied that narrow space between her flat and the fence, so that when they danced, the dust coiled up into heaven and almost embraced them. I saw Kayode among these women when I came out of our veranda. I saw the smile he had not graciously shown to us for a year,  now light his face completely. I remember the last time I saw him was when he shook his bare chest which flashed in the bright sunlight. He had hung a t-shirt across his shoulders and a while later, a motorcycle pulled up across the red earth street. I recognised the rider even from a distance; it was his friend who often visited and spat over the fence or chased wall geckos about as if they had stolen his pride. Kayode performed another dance in front his smiling friend before he hopped into the bike; raised his hands heavenward like someone tipsy before they zoomed off.


Few minutes later, we would hear news of Kayode’s demise. We would hear that their bike had rammed into a trailer as they celebrated Oshiomhole’s victory across major Benin roads. He and his friend were trapped under the heavy-duty vehicle.

There is a certain wind that comes with the death of a loved one – a chilling wind that blows yet keeps the trees still. This wind is not boisterous – silence thrives under its shadow. It was this same frightful wind that poured into our home that day Kayode died. The night was silent; even the night insects lost their voices; the moon moved across the sky, but quite slowly as I noticed, with wools of cloud gliding its mourning face.


This wind, like the harmattan wind, drained the moisture from Madam Patricia’s life and made her small and dried like palm nut. So many persons came to show her condolence: Party people came to sympathize with her, and her daughter Kemi, came back from school to help her mother out of depression. But my parents never went to sympathize with her. Mama nursed the courage to meet her for some days before she finally let go, but my Father believed Madam Patricia had sacrificed her son for her political struggle against his household.


I believe Madam Patricia held my father’s view too in some skeletal manner: she gave all her all to enthroning Oshiomhole as governor. That was why few months after Kayode’s death – at that time Madam Patricia was recuperating from the huge loss – she hanged herself in her flat, not because of his son’s death, but rather because of Oshiomhole’s cruel betrayal: because the government demolished her shop. If the demolition had affected everybody on that street, perhaps it wouldn’t have been such a grave humiliation to Madam Patricia from a government she offered her all and all. Some big politicians who had illegal structures along that street were left untouched.

I saw Madam Patricia’s body because Mama allowed me to; because she was too shocked to say anything; because she gripped her chest like a naked woman lost in a cold night. Madam Patricia hanged herself with one of her blue curtains. She dangled from her brown ceiling fan. While her tongue stuck out, her eyeballs gazed at me terrifically.


Ohikhuare Isuku is a Nigerian writer. He is a First Class graduate of the University of Benin, Nigeria. His poems and short stories have been published in African Writer Magazine (Africanwriter.com) and several online outlets. He is currently working on a full length novel.



Better Be Neutral - A Short Story by Ohikhuare Isuku

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