Happy Valentine

‘Vally…!’ His mother shouted his name as she wiped the mixture of ash and sweat forming on her forehead with the edge of her wrapper. Her intonation was richly igbotic.
‘Valentine!!’ she repeated, this time on a higher pitch. Impatiently, she stood up straight from bending over the firewood that refused to burn. Her eyes had turned red from persistent blowing of burning firewood with air from her mouth. Valentine, who was in the neighbor’s hut had heard his name, but was too engrossed in the bottle-tops football match he was playing with his friend, Chude.
Mama Vally was getting angry.
‘Valentine! Bia neba, I know you can hear me o’
He recognized that tone immediately. It was that tone he had grown very familiar with, the one Mama used to talk to Papa every time he came home drunk. Papa usually ended up sleeping outside the house after the ‘calm discourse’.
‘Yes mama!’ Val screamed atop his voice as he ran as fast as his slender legs could carry him straight to the hut he knew as home.
‘How many times have I warned you not to ignore me when I call you?’ Mama Vally had grabbed his left ear and had begun to twist and turn. ‘Eh? Answer me.’
‘I’m sorry, Mama’ the poor boy winced in pain. His mother added a slap on his back, to make her point sink in faster. Her teenage son screamed out for mercy.
‘Go to the shed and feed the goats.’ She finally said, rolling her colored eyes at him. He fled.
Valentine could swear he was being abused with the way his mother, a short stout and stubborn Igbo woman, disciplined him. After all, Chude’s mother never treated him like that; this he could tell since they were next door neighbors. Even Bobby whose mother was tagged the village witch on many occasions, was never treated so unkindly by the one who bore him –if he was, nobody else knew. He summoned the heady goats together by the wave of green mango leaves. They always understood his every signal, and were prompt to respond, unlike his mother. To be more precise, Mama Vally never really understood anyone. Not her husband, Harrison who had now become a nuisance in the village, not her first son, Obinna who had run from the village with Lovina his secret lover. No one knew where they had eloped to, and frankly, no one cared anymore. She didn’t even seem to understand her only daughter, Chima, who had been ecstatic to leave the village with her husband when he got a mechanic apprenticeship at Owerri. At the village market square where she sold firewood, she had a quarrel at least, every day. All these facts were consoling sometimes, when Valentine thought of them, seeing he wasn’t the only one who had a taste of her rough attitude, but other times it was all the more frustrating, knowing it was a habit she might never be rid of, one he was stuck with for the rest of his life because after all, she was still the woman on whose bosom he had suckled. Or not? Maybe she wasn’t even his real mother. Maybe he was a son they found and adopted as a baby and were too afraid to tell the truth for fear of rejection and abandonment. Maybe the same shape and color of eyes he shared with her were mere coincidences of nature, a reward for a good-natured couple’s benevolence for taking in a lost child into their home. As convincingly as he tried to paint his assumptions, even he himself could never believe them- he was the son of his mother, Ogechi Adafor of Nwerem, aka Mama Vally. It was verity he needed to get used to.
At seventeen, Mama Vally still beat her son. She made the intent of her not wanting him to get spoilt like the other village boys her alibi. She would tug on his faded oversized denim shorts and hit him continuously with her rubber Bata slippers on his rump. When her mood was foul, she complemented it with intermittent knocks on his crown or random slaps on his nape and back. Her hands worked with the swiftness of the ancient typewriters of government secretaries. Once, the neighbors with whom the Adafor family shared their compound had come out en masse to pacify the aggravated woman. Behind the pleading adults were shrouded young teenage boys who jeered and jested and young girls who vowed never to be seen with Valentine for the rest of their lives.
That day he had run an errand for his mother. He was sent to make specific purchases for supper in the evening. He was also expected to get fresh feed for the goats with the change. Then he was to go over to Mama Adora’s house to get the money she owed his mother, every single penny, and get it over before the sun started to go down. In his bubbly spirits, he had hopped off, first to the market for the soup ingredients, then to the animal farm section for fibers and shrubs. As he sauntered out of the market, his lanky frame swaying, he ran into his classmate and crush, Adora, in the company of her not so beautiful friend, Vicky. Rumors had it that Vicky had a huge crush on him, but he had never really seen any signs, and he could swear that even if she did, he could never be attracted to her. Vicky had a boyish physique- her chest was flat and her backside leveled. Her legs were thick and her back was slightly bowed. Unlike the girls her age, she always left her hair full and undone, and never used eye pencil or mascara. He liked Adora instead. He had liked her since class three but was too shy to tell her. Chude teased him and said he behaved like a sissy every time he was around her.
The girls were approaching the market when they caught sight of him.
‘Isn’t that Valentine coming out of the market?’ Vicky said, pointing and squinting her eyes to get a better look.
Adora, being the taller one, replied in the affirmative without the slightest bow. He was closing in on them too, and had now spotted them, smiling sheepishly. Vicky was smiling back.
‘Adora and Vicky’ he called out shyly after they had come up close, ‘What are you doing here?’
Vicky was quick to respond. ‘We came to meet Mama Adora. She’s packing for the day, and has asked us to help her carry her wares back home.’
‘Oh, so your mother is still in the market?’ he directed his question to Adora who was looking at him impatiently. She nodded. ‘My mother asked me to stop at your house to see her for something important. Well, not that it is that important but you know how my mother can be with matters, no, not that my mother is mean or anything. My mother is not mean o, and she doesn’t take things too personally, but she just likes to…’ he stopped himself and sighed. He had been babbling again. ‘Can I follow you to meet her?’
‘Yes. Sure.’ Vicky said in high spirits. Adora barely smiled.
The walk to Mama Adora’s stall lasted forever with palpable awkwardness. Vicky was being shy of him, while he was being shy of Adora, who was being shy of no one as she took long giant steps that made her womanly features bounce under her clothes, and no one had anything to say. Taking several bended routes around women either packing up for the evening or still calling out to customers to patronize them, they reached the stall of the middle aged woman they sought. After a rushed response to Valentine’s greeting, she demanded to know why he had come, while rolling her eyes conspicuously for all to see.
‘My mother sent me to you, ma, to ask for that money both of you know about.’ He said, trying not to embarrass her before prying eyes. She looked at him in utter disgust.
‘Which stupid money do we both know about?’ she had dropped a handful of yam tubers on the floor and was now standing, arms akimbo.
‘I don’t know ma. She just asked me to come and see you for money and collect every penny of it.’ He said, spreading his palms in innocence.
The big woman marched towards him like a soldier on parade, jerked him by the sleeves of his oversized hand-me-down shirt, and looked sternly into his face.
‘Tell your mother that I owe her nothing. Nothing!’ she repeated. ‘If she has a problem with me, she should stop sending her feeble teenaged son to me but should approach me woman to woman so we can trash it out on this ground.’ She stamped her feet hard as she said the word ‘ground’. People were alerted by her raised voice and had started to look towards them. Valentine tried to wriggle free from her grip, but it was too tight for him. She released his shirt seconds later and told him to head on home before she changed her mind. In terror, he turned and took to his heels. He had run halfway home before realizing that his hands were bare. He cussed his enemies under his breath as he turned to rush back to the market, in hope that his goods will still be where he forgot them, and imagining the horror that cooled off at home in readiness for him if he didn’t find it. He reached the market in no time and found that most of the traders had left. He hurried to Mama Adora’s stall but found nothing and no one. Not even his polythene bag of okra, pepper, fresh fish and green leaves. He threw both hands on his head as he stood and turned from side to side, hoping that somehow, he had made an oversight and dropped it somewhere else, hoping that someone somewhere would show up with his bag and ask him if he was the owner. Nothing. A fleeting fifteen minutes passed. The sun was down. The market grew emptier. Nothing. He picked up himself and strode home, expecting the spanking of his life.
The following morning, Valentine woke up with the weight of the world on his head. The incessant pounding of his head by his mother had conferred on him a substantial load of headaches. He scowled in pain as he attempted to arise from the bed a second time. He might just die here and no one would even know, he thought. He groped for his towel among a pile of clothes at the foot of his bed, emptied a cup of water lying idly on his bedside table into it and placed it on his head. As he mopped his temple gently with the soaked towel, he drifted into another round of sleep in which he dreamt of a black witch calling out his name in horrible tones. A slap on the face jolted him back to life as he saw his mother standing beside his bed and shouting his name like the witch in his dream. He winced again.
‘So you don’t want to go to school eh?’ Did she have to shout so loudly all the time, he wondered.
‘Mama, I’m not feeling well. My head aches, my whole body is in pain. I think I might be coming down with a fever.’ He said, making a face.
‘If you don’t stand up there I will increase the fever on your body ten times higher.’ She said and walked away, her large bum tailing her.
That day, he hardly heard anything the teachers taught. He slept for most of the day and dreamt of the witch calling him. In one of the dreams, the witch wore laced shoes and carried a school bag. He was awoken this time by Adora.
‘Wake up, Valentine.’
He raised his head and had exposed his red sleepy eyes in an unfriendly expression before realizing who it was. He forced a smile when he saw her.
‘Take.’ She threw a polythene bag at him. ‘You left it at my mother’s stall yesterday.’ She said and walked away.
He opened the bag and looked into it. It reeked of fresh fish that wasn’t so fresh. He cussed at the bag for causing him such doom, but still managed to squeeze it into his torn monostrap bag. When he delivered it to his mother that evening, she merely collected it and said nothing (not that he expected any apologies or wholesome talk -he had learnt over the years not to expect too much from his mother.)
His life went on routinely. Work, school, walk back home, work, sleep, then school again. Oh, and then church. He went to the Baptist church some missionaries had established in Nwerem many years ago. He enjoyed going there, since that was the only place he got a chance to sing and dance and wear nice clothes, and see many happy faces, and feel like something special because no one shouted him down or taunted his tiny voice or his lanky frame, or reminded him of gloom and pain and all that shame. Neither mama nor papa believed in God, if they did, they never showed it. Papa would rather spend his slightest penny in the local beer parlor than as an investment in his son’s education; talk less of an offering in church. Mama on the other hand busied herself with fighting with anything in sight; once she even quarreled with the goats.
This Sunday was special though. The reverend brought a white man to church. All the children climbed on their seats to catch a clear glimpse of his face. It was certain that no one would understand the entire spree-spree English that he said, so they employed an interpreter: Teacher John. Teacher John –the fiercest, strictest, meanest, coldest, smartest teacher in Nwerem high- taught the entire school Mathematics and English Language. The title of the sermon the white reverend preached was ‘Rejoice! Again I say rejoice!’ he took his texts from several scriptural passages which Ndubisi read loudly to everyone’s hearing. The one that stuck in Valentine’s head was Psalms 32 verse 11. In the sermon, he urged believers to derive their joy from the fact that they were saved, and not from circumstances that came their way.
‘Do not allow the devil to steal your joy by the mishaps of everyday life’ he said into the megaphone. After the interpretation in Igbo was made, many people nodded in agreement. ‘Joy should well up from the insides of your regenerated being. Your situations should respond to your joy, not your joy to your situations.’ He concluded. The congregation stood and clapped as he made his way to his seat on the raised pavement. Soon, they all sang the closing hymn, said the grace and dispersed, the children still scrambling from their mother’s sides towards the pavement to see the Oyinbo reverend one last time.
Valentine walked home gallantly, churning the reverend’s words over and over in his mind. Even though his family was dysfunctional and his mother hated him, he would still be happy. Even though his love for Adora was not reciprocated, and it was manly Vicky who liked him, he would still be happy. Even though Chude, his only friend, had insulted him time and again, making fun of his voice that refused to grow deep and his facial hair that refused to sprout, he would take it in his stride and still be happy. He opened to the first page of his bible and wrote in block letters: HAPPY VALENTINE. Then he smiled, closed the bible and stepped into his family compound, to angry screams of his name by his mother.