Last night we ate quarrel for supper.
It was a local delicacy richly blended with the hungry wails of my two younger siblings and Mama’s raised voice ridiculing our politicians. She began with the President and his greedy cabinet, and then descended on the governors who hoarded the stay-at-home palliatives. Eventually, she reined in on Papa and how useless he became to the family since the lockdown commenced two weeks ago.
When it seemed like the punches of her words were running out of steam, Mama reached for an aluminium cover and clanged it against a forlorn, empty pot right in front of Papa’s face for good measure.
“You hear that sound, eh? That is you. Hollow!” she screamed in Papa’s ears, her lean face ugly with anger. “Good-for-nothing is what you are.”
I huddled closer to the only window in our small one room apartment, no longer aware of my stomach which had growled only a few minutes earlier. In its stead was this shame. Shame over what the neighbours might be thinking turned my body cold as Mama’s aggrieved, high-keyed voice rose higher into the night. It was as though she thought the more words she spewed, the more likelihood it would fill up the pit that gnawed and bit at the walls of her stomach.
“I curse the day I agreed to marry a hopeless plumber like you! See your children barely moving due to starvation. Look at them, and wallow in your disgrace.”
The twins wailed louder, Onome and Ovie were now mere limbs and bones. Looking at them, I could barely believe they were both six. My sister and brother looked half their age.
I drew up my legs and wrapped my arms around them, my chin resting on both knees. I remained that way listening to Mama’s voice finally extinguish with exhaustion. Her entire display reeked of a spoonful of rage, with a mix of crazed hunger, and then something very similar to regret at what she considered her unfair lot in life.
Then the blows descended.
Mama hammered slaps on Papa’s baldhead which made him look older than his forty-six years. She punched his bare chest repeatedly, and when he did not try to fend off the blows, she grabbed an arm and bit his elbow until Papa’a groans satisfied her.
Everyone in our face-me-I-face-you compound listened to this ritual which was becoming a routine. Even my crying siblings had long run out of enthusiasm and were now looking on in confused silence.
But it was Papa who worried me the most.
I could not understand how he could sit so still and stomach those venoms which Mama was dishing in massive dosage. All he had to do was stand up, unhook his torn singlet from the nail on which it hung, and walk out of the room. That is what I would have done in his shoes.
That is exactly what any sane person would have done when confronted with a woman like Mama.
But sometimes, I think Papa is not sane. He seemed to have accepted the guilt, as though it was him who brought the virus from China or asked the government to declare a lockdown. It was almost as if he felt responsible for the cohorts running our country and filling their pockets with palliatives that ought to be shared to people ordered to stay in their houses for the mean time.
That was yesterday.
“Elohor,” Papa called.
I raised my head and stared at the defeated face before me, streaked with deep gashes that made him appear to have aged more since Mama’s tongue lashing last night. It was almost as though I was staring at him without his clothes on. I looked away.
“Come with me,” he said.
It came out like a plea, as though he needed a witness who would help explain to Mama should he fail to grab on to any freebies today. Without a word, I got up and followed him out of the house.
Papa and I did not speak to each other as we stood in the crowd watching the roads. My eyes trailed the passing cars, on the look-out for a good Samaritan on a give-away spree. I crossed and uncrossed my legs, trying to ease my aching feet, no longer certain how long I had stood under the sun, amidst sweat and smelling bodies.
“One meter spacing,” a small megaphone boomed like an angel announcing the second coming of Christ.
Papa grabbed my hand in his sweaty palm. “Ready?”
His question came out more like a reassurance to himself as the bodies jostled us forward, and a forming semblance of a line broke up when a pick-up truck slid into focus.
An attendant in black trousers, a yellow polo shirt and yellow hat stood in the back of the truck, just at the entrance of the open door. He lowered the megaphone, bent down to pick a handful of loaves which he flung at the crowd.
Bodies shoved, suffocating me. An elbow rammed into my ribs, and I doubled over in pain, gasping, struggling to catch my breath. Papa’s hand slipped from mine as more bodies surged forward.
I shrank back, looking to the left and right, searching for Papa.
I found him in an open drainage whose gutter drooled with dark muck, rotten food deposits and excrement.
He tried to rise, but fell back in. “Run after the vehicle, Elohor. Find out where the bakery is located. The owner might spare one more.”
I hesitated at the sight of so many people. I closed my eyes, imagining the bodies rubbing against each other, sharing the virus. When my lids parted, I saw the fear in Papa’s eyes; his fear of returning home to Mama with nothing.
I stood up and set out in a run, racing to push my way to the front. The falling loaves always ahead until the truck emptied and other runners began to fall back. Yet, I continued to run.
I ran for Papa and the twins.
It didn’t matter whether or not I caught the virus.
At twelve, I knew what it was to decide, to make a choice.
And I was making one right now.
The truck gathered speed and exhaust fumes blasted my face, choking me. I sputtered, a hand pressed over my nose. I could barely see the tail of the vehicle as sweat dripped down my forehead, blinding me. When the smoke cleared, I saw the attendant yell something to the driver and tap on the rooftop, slowing the car. He waved a lone loaf of bread in his right hand and tossed as I reached the spot where it landed.
Kneeling, I picked the crumpled baked flour off the ground and wiped the dust off the transparent cellophane. Then I raised the bread to my nose and sniffed, inhaling the sweetest smell I have perceived in a long time, the one thing that stood between us and death for one more day.
Clutching our meal against my chest, I turned around and began to run back towards the ditch where Papa had fallen.
Maybe tomorrow, another Samaritan might come around with another bout of palliative.
All that mattered was that we would eat today.
Gloria Ogo, a graduate of Rivers State University of Science and Technology, is a Nigerian author whose numerous works of poetry and prose are widely read and internationally acclaimed. Among her published works are the novels, While Men Slept, In Blood and War, including a collection of divergent poems, An Apology from Africa. Several of her short stories have appeared in the anthologies by Red Publications under the titles of The Easter Murders and Red Christmas.