Mrs. Jatau saw the light on her phone before it began to ring. She was almost sure it was her first daughter calling. She was not wrong.
‘I am just putting the last touches to my makeup. I will soon be there’, she rushed before her daughter could say anything.
‘Okay Mum. We are waiting for you.’ Annabel responded as she dropped the call.
Mrs. Jatau sighed. She could not put it off anymore. She took her keys and purse, sent a prayer to heaven and left her house.
She was going to her daughter’s wedding introduction.
‘Daddy, come out of your room now! Ha ahn! Do you want the guests to come in and wait for you?‘ Sandra all but shouted. She was the last child of the Jataus’ and had grown up when their parents had gone soft. She could say anything to them; which was slightly different from her four elder ones.
‘I said I am coming now! Go away and leave me alone.’ he responded in his rich tone.
‘Daddy, if you are not out in two minutes. I will break your door oh!’ She returned, pouting her lips and stamping her feet. She may be 20 years but she was all child.
‘If you like, burn the house sef. I will only come out when I deem fit. And I can see that mouth that you are pushing up. I have always told you that it makes you look like fish…a Tilapia.’
Sandra laughed and walked away.
Mr. Jatau sighed. He could not hide in his room anymore. He admitted he was scared. But if he remained in his room, that would be awfully rude to the guests he was expecting. Though he had never had a good relationship with his oldest daughter, this was not the time to completely ruin what was left of it. He sucked in air into his large tummy and opened the door. The sooner he got over this, the quicker he could go to the club house and share some laughs with his cronies.
He walked down the stairs to his living room.
This was the first time in 18 years that the entire Jatau family was seated in one room. Oliver, the first child, was reclining in one of the sofas. Tall, buff and selfish, he managed to look like a king. The three daughters sat together on the sofa, with Robert, their adopted brother, sitting in between Annabel and Elizabeth while Sandra sat on the floor. The sitting arrangement was such that both their parents sat opposite them.
Mr. and Mrs. Jatau managed to sit as far apart as possible without looking like they were trying to do. Annabel sighed. She cleared her throat and began.
‘Dad, Mum…before our guests turn up, we have some things to tell you. I will start and my siblings will join in.’ She looked from one parent to the other and then her sisters. Her parents were trying all they could not to squirm but it was not working. It was as uncomfortable for them as it was for her. She sucked in her breath, stared at the floor, and started talking.
‘Today is exactly 18 years since you got divorced.’ The finality in her voice had a ring of judgment to it and it got the desired effect on her parents; guilt and shame. Even though they had been divorced that long, Mrs. Jatau maintained his name because in Africa, you are better off with a ‘Mrs.’ attached to your name.
‘I will start with you, Daddy.’ This time she looked straight at her dad. He dropped his head and put his arms between his thighs; the classic pose he took when he was insecure, sad or contemplative. Annabel knew she had to get the edge off her voice.
‘Daddy, you were never nice to Mummy…well, not never. But in most cases, you weren’t. I grew up seeing Mummy pick up the slack when you should have been taking care of us. You were more a man-about-town, spending for other people, than you were in catering to your family’s needs. Mummy never let us go hungry, even if you never brought in any money’.
That was Elizabeth’s cue. ‘Daddy, all through our stay in school, you never paid school fees on time; sometimes paying the first term fees in second term. We got to be known as one family that alwaysdefaulted in fees. It was so bad that one teacher came into the class to drive students who had not paid school fees and as soon as he entered, he said “Elizabeth Jatau, I don’t need to look at the list to know your name is on it. So pack your books and go home.” I wanted to die Daddy! Everyone in class laughed. I acted like I was okay but my spirit broke’.
‘Even when Mummy paid our school fees, you beat up Annabel for daring to accept the money’, Sandra said. There was a catch in her voice and that pricked her father and mother. She was their baby, and they were all fiercely protective of her.
Mrs. Jatau started crying. She didn’t plan to but her eyes couldn’t hold back anymore. Mr. Jatau maintained his stoic expression. He still had his head down.
Annabel continued. ‘When the divorce finally pulled through, you banned us from seeing our mother. When, after less than three months, you married again, and our lives became a living hell. Your wife would maltreat us…’ Annabel’s voice wavered. The tears were about to drop, but she controlled it. She sniffed just as Robert rubbed her back. She smiled at him and faced her father again. ‘I remember when Mummy bought us school scandals. You came home, went straight to our room like you knew Mum had brought us things. You rounded up the scandals and poured kerosene on them. With one strike, they went up in flames. We watched them burn, knowing you were not going to buy any for us and knowing that there was nothing we could do about it.’ The tears had begun falling and Annabel sniffed as she spoke.
Elizabeth wiped the tears that had been free falling. She cleared the clog in her throat. ‘We used one uniform from our junior classes until we had to go to our senior classes. We had patches all over. Our scandals were eyesores. School bags? We cannot even mention! We were the source of constant laughter because you always came to drop us with different cars yet couldn’t provide the basics. If not that we were super intelligent, we wouldn’t have been able to get past the criticism. I checked my classmates one day when I told them that the basic necessities they had didn’t prevent them from being dull. Eventually, we got to be liked because of our realness, our excellence in academics and sports, and our friendly attitude. But beneath all that friendliness, we were a bunch of insecure kids…well, with the exception of Oliver.’
Oliver, who had been dozing off, raised his head and nodded, feigning an active participation that no one was buying.
Sandra got up and went to their father. She sat on the arm rest and put her arm around him. ‘Daddy, we are not here to judge you. We just want to explain some things to you and mum.’ She rubbed his shoulders. He looked up at her and smiled. ‘It is my turn daddy. My sisters worked hard to make my life easier even though they were kids too. I remember when I was injured from a corroded zinc fence. Your second wife wouldn’t give us transport money. Annabel had to carry me on her back while Elizabeth held my foot to stem the bleeding. They walked a long way until we got to the hospital. After the treatment, they carried me again back home.’
Mrs. Jatau, for the first time that evening, turned to the father of her children. In a voiced choked with pain, she spoke to him for the first time in 12 years; the last being the time Annabel was on admission in the hospital. ‘How could you be so wicked? How could you let my children suffer like that? You good for nothing, son of a…’
‘Oh Mummy shut up!’ Annabel shouted. Her mum and dad both flinched. Annabel dropped her voice. ‘You are equally as guilty as Dad is. We will get to yours later. So please stay quiet as we speak to Dad’.
The expression of shock on her mother’s face was priceless. Annabel quickly looked away.
Sandra continued. ‘I remember how you used to give us money once a year to buy clothes. We would go to the bend-down-select markets to get our clothes. We learned to bargain so we could buy as many clothes as possible which would last us a year. And we always bought big clothes out of necessity. When people asked us where we shopped, we would smile, square our shoulders and say “BDS Boutique. You should try them”. Imagine how we had to deal with friends who shopped at real boutiques? Anyway, that is a story for another day’.
Elizabeth sniffed loudly. She got up and went to the bathroom. Everyone was quiet; seeming to need the respite from the emotionally laden session. When Elizabeth returned, she sat down – yoga style – near her father.
‘Daddy, you were partial to us. I know you were born in a generation where women were considered inferior but you really stretched that issue. You – both of you – spoiled Oliver.’Oliver turned to look at Elizabeth and she returned his look. ‘You taught him that it was okay to be lazy. For years, you let him run amok and it wasn’t until you saw that we were doing exceptionally well that you decided girls were worth it. I remember when we were going to the university for the first time. You put us in car and told us to do well with our registration. But when Oliver was going to school, you sent us to the market to buy his provisions and bedding, after which you piled us in your car and drove him straight to school. You didn’t leave until he had settled in. As you did that, you forgot how we had to beg you to release one car to transport our stuff to school. We know every parent has a favorite but you didn’t need to rub it in our faces that your only son is your favorite. That has made him lazy, rude, absolutely selfish and…’
‘Are you stupid?! Who are you talking about like that?!’ Oliver jumped on his feet as he tried to browbeat Elizabeth.
‘…and domineering, especially when he doesn’t get his way.’
Oliver took a step towards Elizabeth. Annabel stood up and faced him. ‘If you touch her today, I swear by GOD that you will wake up in the hospital.’
Oliver and Annabel had a stare down that could have rivaled Floyd Mayweather/Manny Pacquiao’s big pre-fight stare down. After about 10 seconds of intense silent battle, Oliver dropped his gaze.
‘Well, I guess I am wasting my time here. I will not seat back and listen to my younger ones disrespect me.’ He walked away. As he touched the door knob, Annabel shouted. ‘Oliver, if you walk out of this door, be rest assured that none of us will ever speak to you again. You cease to be our brother and we refuse to have ANYTHING to do with you.’
Oliver remembered the last time she had made that threat. He had hit and broken her nose after she insulted him for stepping on the wet floor she was laboriously cleaning. They had all excommunicated him and that had been a trying time for him. For six whole months, none of his sisters had spoken to him. He was just about to turn when his father, for the first time that evening, spoke.
‘Oliver, come back here and sit down.’ His tone was final, leaving no room for argument.
Oliver huffed. He returned to his seat and plopped himself into it.
Robert, who had been quiet all this while, cleared his throat. ‘Dad, you took me in when my parents couldn’t stand me. I became a part of this family and felt like you were my father. I love you like my father and I am grateful you ensured I was balanced.’ He turned to Mrs. Jatau. ‘Mummy, I didn’t live with you, but you treated me well. You brought things for me every time you came to see your kids. Thank you for accepting me.’ He returned his gaze to Mr. Jatau. ‘As much as I love you, there were things you did that were wrong. You used to prevent Oliver from entering the kitchen because he is a “man” but that didn’t apply to me. When the girls got admission to school, I became your cook. You also would give Oliver pocket money but leave me hanging. You seemed to expect me to take charge of the house chores while Oliver lounged in the room. This made Oliver disrespect me even though I’m older than he is. I wanted to leave so many times but the girls got me through it all. They were mother, sister, and friend to me.’
Annabel smiled at him. She turned to her mother. ‘Your turn Mum’. Annabel had a temper matched only by her mother’s, so she knew she had to tread carefully. ‘Dad might have been a bad husband but you contributed to it.’ Annabel knew she drew blood when her mother looked at her squarely in the eye and frowned. ‘I remember growing up in this house. We would wake up to you cussing dad out, yelling at him, nagging him. If he was at home, you would ask why he was home. You would mock him, telling him that he was only at home because he was broke. And when he went out, oh my GOD! You would chew him out for coming back home at 2am. You made the house unbearable for him. No man wants to return to that! In fact, NOBODY wants to return to that! You would fight dad in the house and let it spill into the compound and the streets. You will insult him and he in turn would beat you. We were so ashamed that our parents acted like that. I was a kid and I didn’t want to be at home. I hated every hour we had to return from school.’ Annabel exhaled.
Elizabeth jumped in. ‘And because daddy hit you, you became bitter to everyone! You took your vengeance on us. You beat us like we were adults in a fighting match. It always felt as if, since you couldn’t beat dad back, we became the fall guys. You literally took out your frustrations on us! I remember when you beat me once for going into the neighbor’s house without permission. We were not in this house then. You beat me so bad that I was choking. I may have been a kid but I knew my breathing ceased a couple of times. That was not discipline mum; it was abuse.’
‘You used to beat me so much that I asked you one day if I was your child’ Annabel returned. ‘And because I am the one who looks exactly like Daddy, you kept hitting me. You would hit me and tell me that I am just like my father. I didn’t create my face Mummy…I would have changed my look just so you wouldn’t hit me.’ Annabel collapsed in tears. Her sisters went to her and held her. The sobs shook them as they bonded in pain.
Oliver looked at his sisters and looked at his parents. ‘Since we are using this opportunity to talk, I have some issues too. I am not bright academically; my sisters got all that. But as my parents, you should have helped me instead of insulting me in front of them. You would call me “dull, useless, stupid, foolish” and other such names when correcting me. You would even compare me to them and ask me to be less dumb. Well…I wasn’t trying to be dull! I couldn’t understand what was taught in school! I tried to read and it just wouldn’t stick! Eventually, my sisters began to use the words you used on me. They were rude and insulting…just like you! So I hit them! Because like you dad, the only way to show my dominance and seniority was by beating them down. So whatever I am today, you made me so!’
Sandra stood in the middle of the room. ‘Okay…I think everyone needs to calm down. Too much tears and we are expecting guests. I will get drinks for everyone and then we can continue.’ With that, she walked into the kitchen.
What happens afterwards in the Jatau family room? Read the rest of the story in ‘DAD, MUM…YOU FAILED US! (2)’.