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Authors: Precious Williams

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BOOK: Precious
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‘He was a very powerful, very rich man,’ my mother says. ‘He would put money on to the ground and tell me to dance on top of the money. Nitty, we have to get going. Your uncle can tell you the rest of the story in the car.’

My mother leads me by the arm out into the hall where Judy is howling.

‘That dog had better be removed before I return Anita,’ she says, ‘If it’s not gone, I’ll remove the damned thing myself.’

When I Had You To Myself

MY MOTHER’S CAR SMELLS of oranges. And unlike Nanny’s ancient Datsun, this car’s floor is carpeted, in cream, and it’s not littered with empty crisp packets, Ribena cartons and sweet wrappers.

Mummy Elizabeth presses buttons and things instantly happen: the doors lock, the windows roll up, the space suddenly fills up with music – Donna Summer’s voice singing the song
‘I Feel Love’. One of the slippery pale leather seats juts backwards. This, I imagine, is how it would feel to be inside a spaceship.

I can see Nanny and Aunty Wendy standing next to Gramps’s wheelchair through the sitting room window. They grow smaller and smaller until we turn the bend out of sight. I feel a deep sense of dread. This spaceship, even though it has cuddly, giggly Aunty Onyi in it, is surely delivering me, at top speed, straight to hell.

‘Look at her face!’ says my mother, who has been watching me in her mirror.

‘What you crying for, darling?’ says Aunty Onyi.

‘She’s crying for her white nanny,’ says my mother. ‘Bloody Nanny.’

‘You love your white nanny, Anita?’ says Mr Obinna.

I nod. ‘Yes. I love Nanny and she loves me.’

There’s laughter.

My mother shakes her head. ‘They’re sick, sick people,’ she says. ‘That woman. Nanny. Always kissing Anita on the lips.’

 

Aunty Onyi, who is sitting next to me in the back, hands me a Carama
c
bar. Aunty Onyi, who hasn’t seen me for at least two years, has remembered that I crave sweets. She cares about little details like that, probably because she must spend so much time dreaming about becoming a mother and fantasising about all the wonderful little things she would do for her child if only she could have one of her own.

I cram a piece of the squishy sweet caramel into my mouth as I listen to more of Mr Obinna’s story and gradually I give myself over to the tale. I start to feel like I am actually in Africa with this King Eze Uche bloke, marching through something called the Evil Forest. Giving people orders and wading through piles and piles of money.

‘The people in the village would follow him just for a chance to smell his farts,’ says Mr Obinna.

I laugh so hard that some of the Caramac, now melting, oozes down to my chin.

My mother’s head swivels round to face me, her lips pursed and crossed. ‘This is not funny, Anita,’ she says. ‘This is real.’

‘How come you didn’t want to stay in Africa?’ I ask quietly.

I know that my mother came from Nigeria but she’s never made it clear why she fled the place, or why she left Agnes – who must have been a baby then – behind. Now, just like that, she begins to unravel a portion of the mystery of her past.

My mother says she used to work for the Bank of America in Lagos. She loved her job and was chased all over the city by important men who wanted to marry her. Agnes stayed with Mother’s grandparents in their village.

While still at the Bank of America, my mother fancied a change. She signed up to become one of Nigeria’s first-ever air hostesses, flying for Air Nigeria. The novelty wore off quickly: maybe she didn’t like having to take orders and serve people drinks and food. After working on a flight that brought her to England, my mother instantly resigned from air hostessing and remained in London. She bought a house.

She was strolling down Oxford Street one morning when a white man in a raincoat began following her. She stopped, turned and said ‘Can I help you?’ and he told her she had the most amazing legs he had ever seen, that he was a photographer and that she had what it took to be a fashion model.

Mother took the man’s advice and became a model, but she had to give up modelling once she fell pregnant with me. So she began working for a lawyer named Mishcon, who went on to become Baron Mishcon, the QC.

‘Are you a lawyer too, Mummy?’

‘No,’ she snaps. ‘I was just extraordinarily good with figures.’

So good was my mother with figures that she used to scare Mr Mishcon because he would reel off clients’ names to her and she would be able to tell him off the top of her head the exact amount that was on any client’s ledger at that precise moment in time. Mr Mishcon nicknamed her ‘Figures’.

 

‘Anita, listen,’ my mother cries. ‘You need to learn about my grandfather. My grandfather was very, very powerful. He accumulated so much money! Before the white expatriates had telephones, he had a telephone in his house. And this was years ago. In the 1920s.’

Aunty Wendy and Uncle Mick don’t have a phone in their house even now and it’s the 1970s. Nor do half the people on Woodview.

‘He was judge, lawyer and king,’ says my mother.

‘So was he like Mr Mishcon?’

‘No. He was much more important. He was carried around in an
amok
. Do you know what an
amok
is?’

‘No, Mother’

‘It’s like the thing the Roman slaves carried their kings in,’ says Aunty Onyi. ‘Isn’t it?’

My mother ignores her sister and continues.

‘A book was published about him too, in the 1930s. It’s called
Anayo
and it was the first ever fiction to be written down in Igbo. Except it’s not a fiction. They call the hero of the book Anayo, but the book is really about Eze Uche, my grandfather.’

‘Wow!’ I say. ‘What does he do in the book?’

‘It’s about his life, isn’t it? How the whites made him into a king and how he became rich and then lost a lot of money and then became incredibly rich again.’

‘Have you got it at your house, mother? The book about him?’

‘No.’

I have never seen any books in any of my mother’s houses. All I have seen there is the
Daily Mirror
and an amazing magazine called
Ebony
, which is full of pictures of long-haired ladies who look like Sindy dolls, except their skins are beige, bronze or cinnamon-coloured instead of white.

‘Anyway,’ my mother says. ‘You wouldn’t be able to understand the book. It’s written in Igbo. They’ve got it at home, in Aro-Eze.’

‘What did your grandfather look like, mother?’

‘He was very black. Very short. Barely even five feet tall. But he was so powerful that all the other men wished they could look just like him. He turned his short stature into an asset.’

I look down at my feet which are long and narrow in my sandals, indicating that I will one day become tall and narrow just like my mother.

‘Why are you so tall then, mother? If your grandfather’s so little?’

‘My dad was six foot six. It’s amazing my dad was able to grow so tall considering the fright he got when his own dad sold him.’

‘Why did his dad sell him?’

‘Because he wouldn’t go to school,’ she says matter-of-factly. ‘My dad used to climb up a mango tree on the way to school and hang out in the forest all day. His dad was spending a lot of money sending him to school but he wasted that money by not going. He was very mischievous. So, my dad’s younger brother told on him and one day my grandfather followed him and caught him up the mango tree. And he sold him.’

I think about my grandfather being sold, and a door of hope opens inside me. Maybe my mother got rid of me simply because I was very naughty. Like my grandfather. Maybe I
wasn’t
born an evil unwant-able spirit. Except of course my mother didn’t sell me; she pays Nanny to look after me.

‘What are you making a face for?’ Mummy Elizabeth says. ‘Children were sold off then and no one batted an eyelid. People didn’t get all sentimental about children the way white people do. You have to understand, Nitty. Men had so many wives then and they had so many children then. It didn’t make that much difference if one of them got sent away.

‘But my grandmother was quite angry about my dad being sold because he was her favourite son. And luckily she was a very powerful woman; she came from a rich family. What a formid-able woman! Oh, believe me – when she sang, she could wake up the dead! She had a very powerful voice.’

The dead in Nigeria are always waking up. When somebody dies there, they only seem to die for a little while, a few years at most. Then they come back. A grandchild or nephew is born and the dead person’s spirit enters the newborn’s body. I’ve been told I am the living image of one of my great-aunts; a woman with a delicate constitution who wept like a child every time she saw anyone or anything – even a tiny insect – hurt.

‘So what happened to your dad in the end, Mummy?’

‘My grandmother ran to find the people her husband had sold my dad to and she paid them double the money they’d already paid for him and she got him back. Then she ran off back to her own family with my dad – leaving her husband and the rest of her children behind. She never came back to my grandfather’s home until she was dead. Her last wish was to be buried behind my grandfather’s big house in Aro-Eze; and that is where she is buried. But her grave is only marked by a palm tree. So the rain is beating her.
Beating her
!’

 

Despite his penchant for selling children (or perhaps
because
of it), my mother says she had great respect for her grandfather, the King. My mother’s English name was given to her by her mother and inspired by the scary, ghost-faced Queen Elizabeth the 1st, but it was my mother’s grandfather who suggested her Nigerian name: Oluchi. Meaning ‘God’s creation’.

As we cruise out of Sussex and then through the last traces of Surrey; as glistening foliage gives way to the motorway and stark concrete: I come to a realisation. I had imagined that I now despised my mother but here, in her presence, that layer of hatred around my heart proves to be flimsy. It is unravelling easily.

All the way to London, my mother’s fantastic stories continue to flow out of her like an enchanted river. Aunty Onyi and Mr Obinna keep quiet, just listening and occasionally nodding.

I hear that my great-grandfather had thirty-six wives and more than two hundred and fifty children. I’m told that in Aro-Eze, where my great-grandfather lived, me, Agnes, my mother and Aunty Onyi and Aunty Adaeze are all considered princesses.

‘But would they actually
call
me Princess?’ I ask.

My mother turns her head my way and blinks her eyes at me.


Would
they, mother?’

No answer.

I sit there feeling as though I’m not in a car at all but rather floating above the earth in a dream-scape, bloated with all this new information and drunk with the thrill of finally knowing a chunk of my history. A princess! It almost makes sense. I have been accused before of being aloof and since I’ve looked the word up in my dictionary, I know that aloof means that I ‘hold myself apart from others’. Such behaviour is surely fitting for a princess, I think.

But the only princesses I know of are Princess Anne, Princess Margaret and Cinderella. I didn’t realise you could get coloured princesses or that princesses could be foster-children.

‘Mama?’ I say and I have not called Mummy Elizabeth Mama since I was about three years old. But now I’m beginning to love her again and the word just slips out. ‘Please can I ask you a question? If I’m really a princess, how come I live on a council estate?’

‘Never stop asking questions, do you?’ my mother says, flicking amused eyes across my face then turning her eyes back to the road ahead.

 

We arrive at my mother’s new flat, where her big sister Aunty Adaeze is waiting, lounging on a sofa, dressed in a gold African outfit. Aunty Adaeze is thinner and less jovial than Aunty Onyi, but she has the same kind of face: shaped like a pumpkin with cheeks you just want to pinch and dark eyes barely bigger than slits.

‘What do you think of your mummy’s new flat?’ Aunty Adaeze says.

‘It’s fine,’ I say.

Everything is shiny and the colour of vanilla ice cream, from the weird slippery sofa to the smooth chunky dining table. There are no carpets; your footsteps echo when you walk across the smooth shiny floors.

We all sit down on the sofa in a room my mother calls ‘the parlour’. The sofas are so new that the see-through plastic is still on them and we keep sliding towards the edge of the seat. Four pairs of expectant African eyes are focused entirely on me. I can think of absolutely nothing to say.

‘Precious!’ says Aunty Onyi, pinching my cheek and moving it from side to side.

‘Precious Anita!’ says Aunty Adaeze.

Why do my aunties get so excited just from saying my name?

‘Anita, you’re so tall! You look just like your mother, eh?’

‘Do I, Aunty?’

‘You have your mother’s stature.’

BOOK: Precious
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