By Veronica Nkwocha
Wisps of snow fall around me. I look up as they drift past me, melting as they float to the ground. It is March. March winds were meant to bring spring showers. The snow showers dance unabated, running riot as they spin around, confused by every fleeting breeze. It is cold. But I pretend they are floating tincy, wincy bits of summer petals. I twirl and turn; it was cold like this the day mama died. Cold as ice when I put a gloved black lacy finger on the coffin one last time, wishing it was her soft cheeks, dimpled from smiling, her eyes melting with love as her gaze look deep into my eyes. Mama. Oh mama.
“Cassandra! Cassandra!!” papa calls.
I pretend not to hear. I hear singing from distant places, it’s a violin, then a flute, and then it’s an orchestra. Papa is at the doorway. Even though I see him from the corner of my eyes, I pretend not to, I twirl and turn to my imaginary song. I smile as the petals fall on my upturned face; the wet snow sips in through the corner of my smile. He yanks me and draws me inside. My face is wet, is it the snow or my tears? I taste the salt; it is familiar, all too familiar since mama died.
“You will catch your death of cold,” he says.
He takes off my wet summer dress and puts on warm layers. I’m trussed like an Inuit in deepest winter when he finishes. I look like an astronaut on the moon. Then he hugs me. And cries and I taste the salt of his tears.
“Cassandra,” he says into the telephone. “It’s Cassandra”.
I wonder what he means. He looks at me long after he finishes his call. A sense of foreboding envelops me. I sit still. He calls me. I run to him. A fear of losing him too propels me. What if. He is startled at my obedience. I know, because I see him wide-eyed, open-mouthed.
“Cassandra?” he calls.
I look into his eyes. I’ve ignored him so long. Since mama died. Two whole weeks and I still crumble on the inside and I’m numb on the outside.
“Grandma will be coming for a few weeks,” he says.
Summer grandma, Mama’s mama. She’s big and she dresses different from everyone I know and lives in a big house. A house of wall geckos and ceiling fans and cousins running riot. In Nigeria. I’m wide-eyed, enthralled. I look behind the great big painting of daddy’s grandpa. I wonder if her geckos will hide there. Or maybe behind the vase where mama puts the flowers papa gives her, she, caressing the petals and telling me; “Cassandra, come see how lovely the scent is!” And we would go, “Ooh! Aah!” and wrinkle our noses to suck the scent in even more.
“With all the cousins?”
He wears a stunned expression. I haven’t spoken since then. He smiles. It’s infectious, I smile back. He holds me close and sways, humming my favourite song. I kiss him on the cheek and he grazes me with his beard. I push him away and rub my soft cheeks, his smile grows even broader.
“No my love, just her.” He carries on a monologue; I no longer listen. I’m lost in his voice, and it lulls me. I drift off to sleep, trussed up and content in papa’s arms.
Papa is tight-lipped. He stares straight ahead as he drives on the M25. Grandma sits next to me at the back of the car, cupping my palm. Grandpa sits next to dad. Two rigid walls. She smells of her house. In Nigeria. Her scent and my favourite soup. I can’t wait to get home so I can hug her properly. She cuddled me in the folds of her garments at Heathrow, my hot chocolaty lips smeared her white dress but she didn’t mind, she said that’s what grandmas are for.
The rigid walls agree a week later at breakfast, all three adults prodding me to finish my orange juice; yes, Cassandra should go to Nigeria for the Easter break, yes, because it will be difficult for papa as he has to be away in Amsterdam for an important conference. I’m happy but scared. Who will be in the house if mama comes back? The silence as we drive to the airport scares me. Grandma holds my hand and smiles.
She sings softly as though she hears my thoughts, “I carry you in my heart everywhere I go, I wrap you in my thoughts so you’ll never go”.
The journey with British Airways flies past in a blur. I sit wedged between Grandpa and Grandma colouring everything I can lay my hands on.
‘Pit pat, pit pat’ the rains are relentless in the darkness as we arrive at their home, dripping wet as we escape into the house, speared by the fattest drops I have ever seen. I want to linger but I am half-dragged, Grandma complaining, “my weave my weave”. I don’t understand until I see her peering at her hair in the mirror at the landing, arranging it here and there.
“This rain has spoilt the style” she says moaning in a resigned tone.
“Nkechi!” she yells in the loudest angry voice I have ever heard from her.
Someone comes crashing down the stairs. A fast slap connects with Nkechi’s face; I nearly melt into the wall.
“Didn’t you hear us drive in? You should have been down since to help with the luggage, stupid lazy fool.”
Nkechi fawning, “sorry ma, sorry ma” as she slips out of the front door before I even have a proper look. She wasn’t here last summer.
“Foolish girl,” grandma mutters under her breath.
“Come here, love,” she says to me.
The change in tone shocks me, I stand momentarily frozen, me no higher than the table where she placed her bag beneath the mirror. Although they say I am tall for six.
We walk into the palatial living room. There are no cousins running riot. Maybe they are upstairs. I hold the carved bannister as I walk. Its beginnings downstairs and the ending upstairs are twin lion heads with full manes of carved bronze. It looks odd like a long winding snake with lions for a head and tail. There are no chirpy voices upstairs or downstairs. I look at grandma askance.
“What is it Cassandra?”
“Where are the cousins?”
“No wonder, I kept wondering why you were going up and down, they all come during the long vacation, what you call summer holidays.”
The disappointment is too much to bear. My empty heart feels emptier. I can’t put it in words.
I nestle into the downy bed. No mama or papa to read me a story or kiss me goodnight. The ache is a big fat lump tonight. There were lots of cuddles from grandpa and grandma after a long prayer and bible reading downstairs; I fell asleep halfway through. I was sent upstairs to my room with Nkechi who was told to hold my hand. She cradled it as though it were a priceless jewel, carefully asking me to watch my step. She covered me with the light blanket and turned the bedside lamp to low.
“Goodnight Cassandra, you are welcome, welcome o. My room is the other one, see that door there?”
I nod, staring at her face, her eyes are pretty and almond shaped, her hair cropped short. Her gown is much too big for her ten-year-old frame, I realise its grandma’s old faded yellow blouse stitched at the armpits to preserve her dignity. She slips out of the room noiselessly.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven. The number of times since morning grandma has changed her tone in an instant; a soft voice for me, angry yelling for Nkechi who appears to deflate with every shout. She scrapes, she bows, and she trembles.
“Cassandra!” grandma calls from the next room.
I run to her instinctively, bowing and trembling.
“What is it?” grandma asks, worried at my carriage.
She notices I’m a twin of Nkechi.
“Vamoose from here now, now!” she yells at her.
“Come my dear, come and sit next to me”.
I count the twelfth.
“Is my grandma your grandma? Are you a cousin?”
My query later in the kitchen sends Cook into fits of laughter, her chest heaving. Nkechi smiles, her teeth are like pearls, startling against her dark smooth skin.
Cook says, “She be housegirl.”
A girl in the house, what does that mean? My forehead is creased, curious. “Like me?”
“God forbid,” Cook says. She quickly prays very loudly, “It is not your portion in Jeeeesuuuus name, aamen”.
It seems ‘housegirl’ is a bad word. I determine not to repeat it.
“Her papa and mama don die, God now dey look after her, not so Nkechi?”
“Only God,” Nkechi answers and then lets out a long sigh.
Then she starts to sing as she washes dishes on a sink too high for her. I watch in trepidation as she balances delicately on a stool; she refuses my request to help. Cook sends me to the dining room, there’s homework to do. Nkechi stops to look, she’s a great help.
“Grandma,” I say later, “Nkechi is good at maths.”
She says; “Forget that one”, holding me in her arms. She has a melancholy look as she stares at me and looks up at mama’s framed picture on the wall. She looks on as a dark cloud sits on my face and refuses to leave; my face is a crumpling mess. The ache is now a lump and it weighs heavy in the back of my throat. The tears shoot arrows behind my lids.
“Oh my baby, my sweetheart, precious Cassandra”, she said, gathering me closer than before.
“Grandma, it makes me so sad when you slap Nkechi, when you yell at her and call her names. She has no mother ‘cos she died. Her mother must cry so much when she looks down from heaven Grandma,” I say wiping a tear.
I watch Grandma, chin in her hands, looking at me as though I am a ghost.
“I can’t help crying for my mama, for Nkechi’s mother, just because…”
I feel her tears fall on my arm but I don’t move it away or wipe it.
“I miss her so much,” I say.
“I miss her too,” grandma says
My fingers look tiny as I wipe her tears and she says,
“Cassandra, you are wise beyond your years.”
‘Beyond your years’. I don’t know what that means but it sounds like something nice so I smile, she smiles at me through her tears and blows her nose. I run away from her at the loud noise and we both break out in fond laughter.
“Cassandra, come let’s get Nkechi.”
The kindly tone to her voice appears to scare Nkechi momentarily, “Nkechi, come my daughter, come and sit with us at the dining room. Let’s eat together”.
I’m in awe as Nkechi walks to the table, trembling; her usual place for meals used to be the kitchen. Her every move is a picture because she lingers as she washes her hands and gingerly puts a morsel in her mouth, suspicious at the turn of events, wary that an adversary can in a blink of an eye become a friend.
A light comes on in my heart and brightens up the room. My laughter is gay and bubbly as I hold grandma captivated with a story. Nkechi is silent but I hear her listening intently and gazing at grandma out of the corner of her eye. Grandma laughs at something I say, she throws her arms about, she’s a funny sight with her overly large bright and shiny red head-tie bobbing here and there so I can’t stop laughing. We hear a tinkle and I am shocked, its Nkechi laughing, the sound almost trapped behind her slight smile. I love the sound.
“This one is called fara, grasshopper,” Nkechi says.
We are lying on the lawn shortly before sun set. It’s nice and warm and the blanket of heat that lay trapped like an oven the entire day has lifted somewhat. Gardener has turned on the sprinklers and the soil is slightly moist. Nkechi holds its green wings gently and turns it upside down. It holds my curious gaze as it wriggles its belly and kicks its spiky legs. It’s beautiful. She feeds it a blade of grass and it chomps, suspiciously at first then as though ravenous. She places it carefully on the lawn and it sits for a moment untrusting at the four eyes gazing closely at it and it flies away.
We skip about and pretend we have wings. Gardener finds it hilarious and plucks two hibiscus flowers, one for my hair and one for Nkechi. She hardly has any so she tucks it behind her ear. I like the look of it so I yell “grandma, grandma! Come and take a photo”. It’s lovely on her camera. She makes it the background picture of her phone.
A terrible thirst awakens me in the middle of the night. I wonder where I am for a few short seconds and then I remember. The room is too dark and I notice there’s light in the corridor. I follow it and down the stairs and stop when I hear voices.
“You see, people thought I was a bigot when I kicked against her marrying someone from faraway England. Now she’s buried far from home and I can’t visit her final resting place at will.”
“Stop it, Ezekiel. He was so good to her, lovely man and she was very happy with him and that’s what counts,” Grandma says.
“And Cassandra? Him already moaning about how hard it is, coping?”
“He’s mourning, there will be difficult days but they’ll pull through.”
I hear grandpa sobbing.
Suddenly the thirst disappears. Did papa send me here because he didn’t want me anymore? I miss the pretty garden at the front of our house, I miss helping mama tend the roses. I miss the lacy curtains and the smell of cupcakes in the oven for tea. I miss the smell of mama. And papa.
He calls in the morning. I hold on to his voice. I want to wrap my hands around the sound and draw him to me. I’m pondering how to do it and I’m not listening to his words. I’m flailing; I’m standing and holding on to the phone but everything about me is falling apart. I whisper ‘I love you’.
Grandma is shopping a lot for Nkechi; new clothes, shoes, books. I help her re-arrange her room. Nkechi said she overheard grandpa calling about good schools for her and a lesson teacher to help at home. She is so excited, it’s infectious. She’s bobbing on the bed and I join her. Grandma pops a head through the door and says “wait a minute”. Nkechi and I wonder what’s next. It’s a cd player for her room. Grandma plays ‘We are Family’ and joins us in a dance. She’s a pathetic dancer, I say. She chases me and Nkechi about the room laughing. Then we are all chasing one another and Cook comes to see what the commotion is about. We are tired after the running and lie on Nkechi’s bed staring at the ceiling fan whirring religiously, seriously.
Nkechi and I hatch a plan that evening. I would compose a letter and beg the driver to post it to papa, explaining why I must return to England and live with him. The roses will need tending and I had watched mama so I knew more than him what to do. His cupcakes were terrible and I could copy mama’s recipe so he wouldn’t have to live on burnt cupcakes. I would also need him on the odd days when I wear summer dresses in snow showers or else I’d catch my death of cold.
We are making a list of everything I need to put in the letter when cook comes heaving up the stairs panting and smiling broadly, her breasts two large swinging pendulums within her loose blouse.
“Im don come ya papa im don come.”
“He’s here!” Nkechi screams in excitement.
I say, “who?”
“Your dad, he’s downstairs!”
I race downstairs, Nkechi at my tail. It’s him! All of him, his blond hair, his handsome smile and his wide arms. I dive into them giggling. I’m proper happy now. So happy.
“Never leave me,” I whisper.
“Never,” he replies.
I lie in the crook of his arms as he sits next to grandpa.
“Welcome my son,” grandpa says. “Seeing the two of you next to me, it’s like Elizabeth is here with us.”
Grandma is bustling about the place ensuring the meal is perfect at the table. Papa tells us about Amsterdam. He’s shocked when I say I thought he wasn’t coming for me. “It was just for a conference, Cassandra,” he says.
Afterwards, Grandma brings out old photos in several photo albums. I see photos from when mama was a baby. Grandpa says papa can choose some to take with us to England. I’m so pleased I kiss him, clinging to his neck. Nkechi helps me and we build quite a pile but grandma says she doesn’t mind.
“Take whichever ones you want, my dear”.
Papa has an idea he says, he would scan them instead and print them off when we get to England. Grandpa says, “please keep the originals and scan copies to us, we’ll print them here.” Papa says that was generous of him. “Cassandra and I treasure these,” he said caressing the photos.
I place the treasured photos in a trinket box.
It’s lovely having papa around. Everyone fusses over him. He enjoys it, I can tell because he’s laughing more. Grandpa takes us out on his fancy boat in the morning. We have a picnic at the beach. I love the palm trees and racing Nkechi to grandpa’s “ready, steady, go”!
The days melt into one and it’s time to leave for the airport. We are off to England, papa and me. I’ll miss Nkechi. She starts to cry. Grandma holds her close and says to me, “don’t worry. We’ve applied to be Nkechi’s legal guardians as she has no family and we hope to adopt. If all goes well, she’ll come with us when we visit you in the summer and we’ll all come back to Lagos together.”
Yay! I’ll be back to summer grandma; to the big house of ceiling fans and cousins running riot. And to Nkechi.