It’s not right for a daughter to see her father naked. I’m sure my father knows this, and deep down in her heart, my mother knows this too. When she sends me to him, she doesn’t look me in the eye, she just nods. Go to him. So, I go, with my head hanging low. I imagine being part of a family where the mother would never let such a thing happen, and the father has self-control and some self-respect.
I hate living in this house where there is no laughter, no voices in the background; it no longer feels like a home. Even the three plants in the cracked flowerpots on the verandah look lifeless, maybe they know what goes on around here, maybe they look droopy and discolored because they’re mirroring the people who live inside.
It wasn’t always like this, there was a time when the sound of my mother’s laughter filled the house, that deep throaty laugh that made her throw her head back and made her big brown eyes sparkle. A time when my father played tapes on the cassette player in the living room and did his James Brown moves on the carpet, it was so horrible that it was funny. A time when the affection between my parents was overflowing.
Now it feels like a lifetime ago.
The laughter died, the cassette player is broken, and my parents have become strangers to each other.
The bedroom is dim; with the light coming in through the slits in the drawn curtains, I can make out my father’s silhouette lying down on the bed. If I’m quick enough, I will be out of here in no time. He lays there, motionless. I unbuckle his belt and pull his pants down. He groans when the wet washcloth touches his skin. The water temperature is an indication of my mood; warm for when I’m feeling obedient, and cold for when my heart isn’t in it.
Despite the dead silence, there are signs of normalcy out there: our neighbor is yelling at her children to ‘get into the house before it gets too dark or else’- I’m sure the children ignore her because the games are more interesting in the dark. Someone is hammering and banging something non-stop, and a vendor is shouting, “Sale! Sale!”
On days when the room is bright, I stare at the dark wooden headboard in front of me, so I don’t have to look at my father’s face. Sometimes he mutters something that sounds like ‘thank you’, or is it ‘sorry.’ I never stay long enough to find out.
When I walk out of the room, I shut the door and look at my mother. She is sitting in the worn blue armchair in the corner, staring blankly at the book in her lap. She is stroking the cheek of her once beautiful brown face with her long bony fingers.
Nothing beautiful thrives around here anymore, even my mother’s beauty has faded. Her face has lost its warmth, her cheekbones look too sharp, and her skin has lost its glow. I haven’t been spared either; my long, thick, black hair that my mother used to love braiding is gone. It’s my way of telling her you’re not allowed to touch me anymore. With short hair, I’m no longer her spitting image. I don’t want to look like her. She didn’t say anything the day I came back from the barbershop. She just wrung her hands.
“This isn’t right,” I say. I don’t know why I’ve chosen today of all days to voice my displeasure, but once I start, I can’t stop. Perhaps I’m finally cracking under all this pressure. “How can you just sit there and let this happen? Why can’t you do something? What’s the matter with you?”
My mother looks at me, her eyes big with shock. We haven’t locked eyes like this in a long time.
I barely recognize her. Her eyes are bloodshot and puffy.
“I shouldn’t be doing this. I’m only fourteen years old.”
She says nothing, her gaze holding mine like two opponents sizing up each other.
“Do you still love him?” My voices trembles.
She looks away, confirming what I have suspected all along. I’m shaking all over. I fear I will drop the bucket in my hand, so I put it down. I reach down and grab the soaking wet washcloth I used on my father and throw it at her. It lands on her book, and she jumps out of her chair, her nose wrinkling with disgust.
“How dare you?” She kicks the wet cloth away with her foot.
My heart is pounding so hard I can’t think straight.
“I’m not doing this anymore! I should be outside playing with my friends, and you should be calling me to come in before it gets too dark.”
I wait for her to say something. I want her to tell me that things will change, that she won’t make me do this anymore, and she is sorry, but she sinks back into her chair, retreats into her shell again. I can’t stand the silence in this house. I go outside onto the verandah and kick the cracked flowerpots.
I watch my father stagger into the house. His clothes are a mess, they are wet and dirty, just like the rest of him, like he has been rolling in muddy water. He turns around to the small crowd of barefoot children behind him and mumbles something incoherent, and they clap and laugh. I get up in time and catch him just as he tumbles over his own feet. He is halfway onto the carpet, so I safely lower him on to it. The same grey carpet where he used to do his James Brown moves.
The children have climbed on to the verandah and are standing in the doorway, looking into our small living room and roaring with laughter at the spectacle in front of them.
“Go away! Get away from here!” I shout, charging toward them, and they run away while chanting chakolwa like they always do. We live in a place where it is not unusual for little children to call adults drunkards, but when the subject is your father, it’s unsettling and embarrassing.
My father has passed out. His white shirt is caked with vomit and mud, and his black afro has dried grass and little twigs caught in it.
When I move closer, I get a strong whiff of feces and the cheap brewed spirits that leaves him comatose. I go to the verandah and grab the bucket of water with the washcloth floating in it and the thin bar of soap from the window sill. I pour some of the water into the miserable looking plants before I go back inside. I already have a pot of hot water on the two-plate cooker in the tiny kitchen to my left. I pour some of the water into the bucket, dipping in a finger to check that the temperature is just right. I kneel next to my father and undo his buckle. My mother looks away, wrinkling her nose when the smell fills the living room.
Normally, he makes it to the bedroom and passes out in there. He never bothers anyone; he’s a quiet drunk. The only time you hear his voice is when he howls at the naughty group of children that follows him on his way home from the tavern, tormenting him in his drunken stupor.
On days when he fails to make it past the verandah, I drag him to the bedroom, but today, I’m cleaning him right here so my mother can see what I experience almost every day.
Instead, she stares at the book that she is never really reading and avoids the evil look I cast her way.
She’s clearly not fazed about my outburst last night and I don’t care. I said my peace. Unlike my mother, I have not given up on him.
I heard him give my mother the speech this morning, the one he always gives at least once every week. My lips moved along with his, I have heard it so many times I can recite it like a poem. He promised her he was going to change, and that things were going to go back to the way they used to be. He apologized for stealing the little money she earned from cleaning people’s houses and for turning her into a laughing stock.
My mother never said a word.
He even promised to have another go at fixing the broken cassette player, an unfortunate victim of one of his careless, intoxicated falls. To show her that he meant every single word he was saying, he put on his “I’m going to look for work” attire: white shirt, black tie, and charcoal grey pants, and left the house.
I had failed to concentrate in class that day. I imagined going home to find my mother laughing and my father doing his James Brown moves on the carpet.
And as soon as she saw me, my mother would say, “Your father’s got a job.” And then my father would dance across the room and pull me onto the carpet and make me dance with him. Laughter, music, talking, just like old times. It would feel like a home again.
Even the plants in the cracked flowerpots would look like they did when my mother used to tend to them.
When he wasn’t back by 5pm, I put a pot of water on the stove, then filled the bucket with water, and sat on the chair closest to the door and waited for my father to come home.