I had planned this party for over a year. “It has to be memorable” I would say. From the cakes to the dresses to the sitting arrangements, it was going to be the way I wanted it. There would be two cakes. One just there for when people walked into the party almost like slices of eggs and cucumber garnishing a salad tray and then the grand cake which will be cut and displayed in timeless sepia photographs. I would have three dress changes. A bit like how those women hosting Miss World pageants would change numerous times until you started to loose count.
One dress to start the party, where the photographer would immortalise snapshots of my very carefully choreographed poses and smiles, one for the cutting of my cake and the last final dress change which has to be more airy and comfortable for the part of the party programme that would read “dance dance dance”.
It wasn’t going to be bogus like the last bash the Awoshika’s from next door had thrown. They closed down the street, just to litter it with swings that barely swayed. It made unsavoury squeaky noises due to its rusty and unlubricated fulcrum. The bouncy castle was an eyesore. It seemed the children were intimidated by its mass and irritated by the generator type noise of the air pumping machine.
My party was going to be different. It would be exclusive. There was going to be a high table just like we did at the children’s harvest in church. We always waited eagerly to see whose name came out on the harvest high table list. I was still waiting for the day I would be chairlady.
There would be games, and a really good DJ. None of those clowns that made children cry, always trying to mime their way out of a box or cupboard. I never understood it. It seemed a bit daft. Who would be entertained by that. Even worse were those Michael Jackson impersonators who made up their own muffled lyrics to “Billy Jean and Thriller”
Or those Micky Mouse and Daffy Duck mascots wearing dirty white gloves we saw, at Maltina childrens parties or at Apapa amusement park, during the school holidays. I often wondered if they ever washed their costumes. Because whenever I got close, the whiff was very unappealing. A bit like a concoction of camphor and stale sweat. It’s the same way the Father Christmas at UTC smelled. I was definitely not having any of that. I would be turning five only once and this had to go down as the best and most exclusive party on our estate.
It was a month of intensive planning. Mother had bought me a suitcase of St Michael’s dresses when she returned from her trip to London . One whole suitcase of dresses just for me with even undergarments from C&A. We almost thought she wont be able to make it back in time because British Airways had delayed her flight and they said all the flights had been fully booked till the end of the month. Daddy had already started throwing hints that we might have to postpone the party and Aunty Christie would just cook rice and chicken to mark the day. I wasn’t having any of that. Everyone at school wanted to be invited but I definitely couldn’t give just anyone the invitation cards Mummy would bring from London . At least I remember Daddy used to say especially if he caught us speaking pidgin English that we weren’t all of the same class. He would say to my older brother “ you have to only walk with the same calibre of people as yourself and this vernacular is going to spoil the way you speak English”. It was why I couldn’t invite just anyone. Am I going to have Farouk on my high table? His father was the security guard to the Chinese people that owned the battery factory on Kolade street . It wouldn’t make sense. We would defiantly not be able to discuss the same things. Or even Aunty Uju’s children who lived at the Anyanwu’s Boys quarters on Suleman Close. I had heard our house girl tell someone that her husband left her because she slept with another man and had gotten pregnant. It was why her daughters Iheoma and Ginika looked nothing alike. People said they were bastards because they had no father. I couldn’t have bastards on my high table. That really wouldn’t make sense.
There were so many dresses to choose from. But I knew the dress that I would be wearing during the main part of the party. It was the same one I would use for my entrance when everyone was there. The one that I will also use to cut my cake. That same main dress I would use to snap the most photographs in. It was the yellow dress. A kind of mild lemon yellow. Not like all those jarring mustard coloured fabrics that people bought in Isale Eko then the tailor would line the part that was supposed to bellow out like a tu-tu skirt with cheap voile that made your waste itch. I didn’t like that and mummy wasn’t a fan neither . My dress was good quality from St Michael’s in London . It was real cotton not all those nonsense polyester that made people sweat and smell as Mummy would say. I even had my black court shoes to go with it.
I always overheard Mummy say to Aunty Uju. “St Michael’s have very timeless things and as far as im concerned they are the best…their stuff is not like all these Chinese wear and tear or what you people buy in aswani and tejuosho.”
The day had finally come. September eleventh. My birthday was here. I had distributed the invitation cards and all the cars were parked outside to make space for the U shaped arrangement that had been planned. Underneath the staircase was going to be the designated area for all my presents.
I went to the hairdressers for Aunty Rita to perm and set my hair. I had described the style I wanted. She would have to place a diagonal parting on the left side so that when she brushed it, a weft of hair would cover one side of my face just like the girl on the PCJ relaxer kit. But rather than the back of my hair bunched into a braid, she would roll mine into a doughnut and the colourful hair clips mummy’s sister Aunty Itoro sent from Canada would be used to hold the ring of hair in place. The party started around 2pm. I wore the blue dress I used for Aunty Itoro’s wedding as a Balloon girl on her bridal train. They had sown beads and sequins into the dress to add more sparkle. I wore my baby pink socks with lace trimmings and tiny blue bows attached to it so it could match my blue dress. After taking pictures, and welcoming my guests, I changed into my yellow frock. My friends in Karate class organised a demonstration which really impressed all the adults. At the end of the demonstration I joined them in the bow like they did in martial arts movies. The DJ played the kinds of songs we liked. TLC, Naughty By Nature, New Edition, Salt N Pepa . We played musical chairs, quizzes and mineral races. Tobechukwu was always trying to cheat during the games and I didn’t understand why mummy said he had to stay on the high table with me. People used to make fun that we would get married some day and it infuriated me. Why would I want to marry somebody who slept with his mouth open during classes at school. There was a day that they even said he swallowed a huge fly and one time he wet himself while sleeping during elementary science lesson. To make it even worse, his head looked like they had used a large skillet pan to bash the front and back together. His eyes were large and they bulged out of their sockets. He was just too ugly and annoying for my taste.
We imitated the drinks race like they did on Sunday Rendezvous but I beat everyone during the dance competition. Especially when it came to doing the fuji cabbage when the DJ played Shina Peters, and Bright Chimeze. Daddy liked Bright Chimeze and Oliver d Coque. He smoked his Rothmans cigarette listening to “Mbiri o mbiri ka mbiri”
I enjoyed being sprayed by all the adults. I held the hem of my dress to form a bucket so I could gather all the money without it spilling out.
I think it felt similar to the way mummy and her friends looked when they sprayed them money during Owambe parties. The beads of sweat that trickled down their faces, showed this look of euphoria and exhilaration, as though they had just received very good news and in a strange way their bodies contorted in rhythmic symphony to every bata drum pattern.
It drizzled a bit and the rain threatened to ruin my party but I was happy it didn’t because I had put a lot of work into it. Mummy already had a canopy as back up. She always had back up plans if anything went wrong. But I don’t think she had a back up for the fire. The one that would make that September 11th our last party together.
He had just walked into the centre in his hooded parker jacket and back pack. The hair on his face was a mass of tangled curls. His skin was light with a tinge of brown, like a drink made from warm milk with cinnamon and sprinkles of cocoa powder. His hair was brown too, with curly ringlets, it was a dirty brown as though bleached buy the sun.
He held his recorder (like the tin whistle) with his dirty hands. He was cold. That Christmas was cold. They had said on the news earlier that it was because of climate change and it was even going to get colder.
He walked up to me and the other volunteers and asked us where we were from. He was cheeky, funny and looked a bit mischievous too. His accent sounded like one of those Yoruba men in England trying to adopt an English accent. He reminded me of the Alaye boys in Lagos. His speech was slurred and he reeked of alcohol. I told him I was Nigerian then he steered at me with his lids wide open and his eye balls seemed as though they were about to exit its sockets. Then he said “shey oun shey work experience abi project lon shey. Sho gbo nko ti mon so”. I could sense the sarcasm in his tone. Then I replied “no it isn’t work experience, this is just something I wanted to do” He started praying for me. He said Nigerians don’t normally do things like this. Giving their Christmas up to look after addicts.
He told me his name was Drummer. He has slept in all the car parks in Sheppard’s Bush and had lived in London since 1980. He wouldn’t tell me his real name. “you look like a shap babe” he said. He said he missed Nigeria.
There was water in his eyes when he told me about his long lost Calabar girlfriend. She used to cook him Nkong and Afang, he has a strange fascination for periwinkles still in its shell. He described the pleasure and relished in the sucking technique to extract the creature from its haven. With a nostalgic expression on his face, he muttered “ile meen ile” home meen home.
Drummer said I looked like the Calabar girl he knew and it was a coincidence I was from those parts too. “you are wondering how I became like this abi”, I smiled. He told me he used to live in Surulere, he studied art and design at Yaba Tech. His father was Itshekiri and his mother was a mixture of different things that’s why his hair was curly and his skin that milky brown shade.
He admitted that drink has destroyed him and so no one wanted to have anything to do with him. His mother and siblings lived in Hays. His older sister was a big woman in Naija. He was a mess. They wanted nothing to do with him. In that Yoruba academician intonation, he said “im an alcoholic, who is going to want to have anything to do with a grown man that cannot help himself”… then he said in Yoruba “you know im not a small boy sha” then I smiled again “the best part of being in oyibo land is that you can get help sho mo” I replied “you only have to try, you can always start again”. As though he had just heard those words for the first time, he retreated into deep thought and said “its true sha its true”. You are a good person “olorun ma toju e” God will take care of you he said.
He grasped his recorder firmly with his two hands. He told me her name was Philomena and he never went anywhere without her. With water cascading down his face, he played me the hymn Amazing Grace. There I was searching for meaning. A bottle had taken over drummer and given his life a different meaning.
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