Written by Faith Oneya
The smell of fresh paint reminds me of a fresh coffin. I cannot stand it. It hits my nose and I step back from the door, slapped by the vicious hand of a painful memory. My face clouds and my eyes water slightly.
“What is wrong?”
I pull myself back. Mother did not raise a coward.
“Nothing baba,” I reply.
The smell of fresh paint disgusts me.
We have moved to a new house in Nairobi.Father has found a nice job in the government. It is in a ministry whose name baba cannot pronounce so he claims it is “too complicated for us to understand” What an illiterate fool.
He has moved from a tiny structure (He pointed it to us as we entered the compound) to this single room that smells of fresh paint.
A lonely pit latrine stands outside, with its roof hanging on precariously to dear life, its rusty exterior a clear sign of its hard work under tough weather conditions. A tiny roofless structure stands timidly by it side. I later learn that it is going to be our bathroom.
The smell of fresh paint persists in my nostrils. It is not so much the fresh paint that disgusts me as is the fact that it was also used to paint coffins that would eventually rot in the ground together with the body in it.
The room is nothing like baba had described.
I see a tiny wooden structure with a thin mattress lying loosely on it. A brown, dirty-looking blanket hangs limply on the side. There are no sheets. An extra mattress stands timidly propped up on the wall. It is thin and wasted from years of use. It seems like its life entirely depends on that wooden wall.
A lonely-looking stove stands at the corner, its body full of bumps and bruises .It surely must have suffered in the hands of an unskilled cook.
“Well?”Baba enquires. His voice holds with it both arrogance and vulnerability, as if he was daring me to say I did not like it while hoping desperately that his only daughter would find sufficient his poor attempts at providing for her in the harsh and unforgiving city.
I do not get time to answer, because aunt Seraphine sweeps into the room in her characteristic swagger, which is not aided much by her excessively endowed rear that makes her walk look rather ridiculous.
“This will do,” she says briskly.
Why is she here?
“Anyango! What are you doing standing there like an idiot! Do you think that this meat will cook itself?”
I walk slowly towards the stove. As if afraid that my feet were not following me (as mother would say).It is difficult to breathe because of the fresh paint, and my chest heaves painfully at each breath. I have always had a weak chest. I wheeze slightly, carefully, because aunt Seraphine might say that I am trying to get out of cooking duty. My mind goes back to the events that brought her to our lives.
“It is only temporary,” baba had said, “A girl should not be allowed to live without female supervision”
That was right after mama had passed on.
And what did a grown man need female supervision for?
Mama had never liked aunt Seraphine. Auntie is famously known for both her humongous backside and love for finer things in life. That is why; as mama said “She hovers around this house whenever your father comes from Nairobi, hoping he will notice her. She is evil.”
I imagined that it would be difficult not to notice the bottom of a woman who wanted you to notice her. But I never told this to mama.
“It will be alright, you will see,” baba said.
Yes, I was seeing that it was NOT alright.
Aunt Seraphine wants me to scrub the house before I cook. My back is tired from sitting eight hours in the bus from Siaya, but I pick a frail-looking plastic pail dutifully and do as she pleases under her supervision. I can see that father has gone on a “meet the neighbors” tour. They do not seem particularly eager to welcome him into their houses.
It does not take long to wash the house, and afterwards I light up the stove and cook a delicious meal that has auntie turning her head to the side, flaring her nostrils and saying:
“It will do.”
I wonder if she thinks that I am seeking her approval. What a foolish woman.
It is time to sleep now. I spread the thin, timid mattress on the ground and Seraphine joins me. She sleeps on her side and her bottom takes up three quarters of the space. Soon, she is snoring. My body is half on the mattress, half on the floor. Sleep takes a long time in coming.
In the middle of the night, I wake up to soft murmurs form baba’s bed. Auntie’s side is empty. I do not let them know I am awake. Let them do what they want. I don’t care.
In the morning, I find auntie on her side of the mattress again.
“I hope you slept well.”
What does she care!
“I slept well auntie.”
Father has already left for the bus stage.
“She had the virus, you know.”
“What?” It takes her a while to maneuver her bottom in order to face me squarely.
“Repeat what you said.”
“She had the virus.”
“You think I did not know that? Your mother was a whore.”
It is easy to hear somebody you hate call your mother a whore.I look at her pitifully. Then I say;
“It is your funeral,” I tell her
And it was.
It is now one year since we buried auntie Seraphine in a fresh coffin. That smelled of fresh paint. The smell of fresh paint disgusts me. Her buttocks disappeared with death. Or death disappeared with her buttocks. Death also took away the permanent smirk form her face.
Her coffin was very expensive. Baba had to take a loan. I had a sneaky feeling that she would wake up any minute and say (of the coffin).
“It will do.”
As if her approval was needed.
Baba says; “Now that was a good woman.”
The smell of fresh paint disgusts me. I turn away from the coffin because I feel nauseated.
Baba wants me to go back to Nairobi with him. I tell him NO. I cannot stand the smell of fresh paint.