Exclusive to The JRB, an excerpt from a work in progress by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim.
Dinner was a celebration, a feast of saffron-flavoured rice and pepper soup, which she made herself, humming all along. Even when her daughter Zubaida casually offered to help, despite seeming to be in a hurry to be elsewhere, Nasrin was happy to dismiss her. ‘If you promise to be back in time for dinner,’ she added.
‘Of course, Umma,’ Zubaida had said over her shoulder as the kitchen door swung behind her.
Nasrin knew her daughter was seeing a boy. She could see the signs—the colours she added to her face when going out, the touch of perfume, the guilty looks when caught on her phone, which she had only got when she turned sixteen a few months ago.
The first time Nasrin found out, spying the subject line of a text the boy had sent to her daughter’s phone, which just happened to be lying next to her at the time, she had felt a certain unease. For the next ten minutes, she stopped what she had been doing—preparing a duty roster for the nurses at the hospital on her laptop, and analysed the essence and subtext of her worry. If Zubaida had been a boy, would she have felt this way? Or was this apprehension because she feared her daughter would be vulnerable? How old was she herself when she first took interest in boys or boys took interest in her? She remembered that bumbling idiot who had approached her out of the blue, confessed his undying love for her and had expected her to do the same on the spot when she barely knew him, as if a fourteen-year-old would know what that truly meant? She picked up Zubaida’s phone to read the text, beyond the subject ‘My Girl’ she had glimpsed, and for a while her thumb casually caressed the blank screen. In the end, she had sighed and put the phone down. Since then she had become increasingly observant of Zubaida’s shenanigans and had been tempted to ask her about this boy.
‘What are we celebrating?’ her husband Bashar asked, standing by the door, taking in the lavish display of food and fruits and the celebratory smile on Nasrin’s lips.
‘Musty got the scholarship,’ she said, her voice rolling into a crescendo.
‘Oh wow! Alhamdulillah, that’s just great.’ Bashar rubbed his palms together. ‘Brilliant news! I’m so happy for him.’
By the time Bashar had gone to the room and slipped into his casuals, Suraj had bristled into the dining room and sat scowling at the laid out feast. Ignoring him had always worked and Nasrin decided to play that card again.
‘Can I take my food to my room?’ Suraj asked.
‘No, sir,’ she said, just as Mustapha walked in, beaming.
‘I want to take my food to my room,’ Suraj demanded.
‘Because you will sit here and do as you are told.’
‘I’m not a child.’
‘You are to me. You will always be,’ she said, ‘See this boy fa! You that I gave birth to yesterday.’
‘What’s wrong with this one?’ Mustapha asked, looking from his mother to his brother.
In moments like these, the contrast between the two became glaring—Mustapha, calm, lanky, dark. Suraj, burly, shrewd, thick eyebrows always furrowed in what Nasrin had once called millennial angst. Always. It got worse after he completed secondary school and at eighteen wanted to enrol into the Defence Academy and become an officer. She wasn’t going to let that happen. She hated soldiers. She certainly did not give birth to one. Rebellious, as always, Suraj had refused to apply to any university, instead building himself into a muscleman, getting into fights, like he did just two days before over a girl. Nasrin had herself treated the cut lip he inflicted on the boy, swathing it with hydrogen peroxide and handing him a cold compress to help with the swelling. For Suraj’s bruised fist, she did nothing, as punishment, even though she suspected he carried it as a trophy, just as she believed these troubles he courted were designed to make her give in and let him stand before her in camouflage. Obstinacy was not something he had a monopoly on. What she would never admit to though was that sometimes she loved butting heads with him, two rams having a go at each other. And since she had banned him from leaving the house since the fight, every time she sighted his brooding figure, a secret smile played on her lips.
‘Your brother is just being rude,’ she said to Mustapha, ‘but tonight we are celebrating so I will not let him ruin it for us.’
Suraj sulked as his siblings fetched their food, the dining room coming alive with the sounds of cutleries kissing dishes. Zubaida, again in a hurry, shovelled a spoonful towards her mouth but stopped just in time.
For the sheer love of order, Nasrin had dictated that her children never eat before their father’s first spoonful. And when she saw how Bashar took his time rolling up his sleeves, something he normally wouldn’t do just before eating, she knew he was trying to infuriate Zubaida. By the time he took off his watch, with deliberate movements, and placed it beside the dish, then twiddled his silver ring, looking at the food as if he would discover some great mystery in it, Zubaida could no longer hold up her veneer of calm.
‘Ha-an! Daddy mana!’ she cried.
Bashar laughed, as did Nasrin.
‘Where are you in a hurry to go to?’ Bashar asked.
Nasrin looked across at her and their eyes locked. Zubaida lowered her eyes and started eating.
‘Zubaida has a boyfriend now,’ Nasrin announced.
Zubaida sputtered and choked. At first, Nasrin thought it was an act, that Zubaida was trying to buy some time. It was Suraj who noticed his sister was actually choking. He jumped off his seat and patted her back. He then put his arms around her, pressing her body against his chest and tilting her head downwards, he gave her a good abdominal thrust. A lump of food flew out from her mouth and fell on the floor.
‘Oh my God! Are you OK?’ Nasrin asked, standing up.
Suraj helped Zubaida into her seat and raised a glass of water to her lips, waiting until she had recovered enough to take a sip. He rubbed her back and put down the glass before going back to his seat.
Even as he sat scowling, every now and then he would look at his sister who was trying to regain her composure. And in these glances, Nasrin saw the affection she had always known he had for Zubaida.
‘We will talk about this boyfriend business,’ Bashar said after Zubaida had picked up her cutlery again.
‘Why is Suraj not eating?’ Bashar asked.
Nasrin picked up a chicken thigh with her fingers and tore a juicy strip of meat, munching as she regarded Suraj.
‘Not hungry,’ Suraj said.
Bashar put down his plate and sighed. ‘Suraj,’ he began, ‘Look, you need to calm down. You are twenty now, or will be soon. You have younger ones looking up to you.’
Zubaida rolled her eyes.
‘I don’t understand this. I want to join the army, why won’t she let me join the army! I’m not a kid. I can make choices about what I want.’
‘Being stupid is not the same as being brave. What you are doing is being stupid,’ Bashar said.
‘I guess you would know about that,’ Suraj returned.
‘What? What did you say?’
‘I know what bravery means. My father died being brave, for this country. Unlike some people,’ he said, shooting a glance at Bashar before leaving the room.
Nasrin bowed her head. The silence in her mind echoed a deeper silence she had not known before. She did not look up at her husband, whose head she knew was bowed as well. But when Mustapha pushed back his chair angrily to rise, she held up her hand.
‘Umma, let me beat some sense into him.’
‘Sit down,’ she said, pushing back her chair and rising. She went after Suraj and found him in his room lying on the bed.
‘You will go back and apologise to your father.’ Her finger pointing at the door was meant to emphasise her words.
‘My father gave his life for this country, for our freedom. That man,’ he pointed in the direction of the dining room, ‘that man, is now cavorting with the same corrupt bastards who my father died fighting …’
‘You ingrate! He took you in and raised you like his own son and this is the kind of rubbish you will say about him.’
‘I’m old enough now to be on my own anyway,’ he said.
She wanted to hit him so hard that a constellation would form before his eyes and guide him back to his senses. But she couldn’t raise her hand to do it. He was fourteen the last time she struck him. The long day at work had left her frazzled, and her nerves twitchy and the thought of cooking that day annoyed her. So when Suraj, who had been standing by the kitchen door, had dashed in, almost pushing her out of the way, she had lashed out.
He had held his cheek as he gazed at her, his eyes filled with hurt and questions. He raised the shoe in his hand to reveal a five-inch long scorpion squashed against the countertop, just besides her bowl of spinach.
She looked at him now, a lost angry young man, and left the room.
- Abubakar Adam Ibrahim is a Nigerian writer and journalist. His debut short story collection The Whispering Trees (Parresia Publishers, 2012) was longlisted for the Etisalat Prize for Literature in 2014. The title story was shortlisted for the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing in 2013. Ibrahim has won the BBC African Performance Prize and the Amatu Braide Prize for Prose. He is a Gabriel Garcia Marquez Fellow (2013) and a Civitella Ranieri Fellow (2015). He was listed by the Hay Festival in the Africa39 list of the most promising sub-Sahara African writers under the age of forty. He judged the Writivism Short Story Prize in 2014 and was a judge for the Short Story Day Africa Prize and the Etisalat Flash Fiction Prize in 2015. His debut novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms, won the 2016 Nigeria Prize for Literature and the 2018 Prix Femina.