As kids, every film we watched had to be approved by our mother. Television we could get away with, as we were only allowed to watch freely on weekends anyway. There was a door between our bedroom area and the living room, which prevented us from visiting the living room without permission. We called it ‘the middle door’, and it was revered. Before The Middle Door, we had those jangly beaded things that our parents liked to pretend were ‘curtains’. But you and I know that they were alarm bells. Set up to alert the parents when intruders ventured from other parts of the house into the living room. Intruders would be I and my siblings, of course. However, they eventually had to go, as one of us nearly got strangled by some of the beads during a very boisterous game of ‘police and thief.’ Dodging bullets, diving for cover, that sort of thing.
“Robocop, Nagin, the Sound of Music, Rosie and Jim…”
That was mum, as she reeled out the titles of the films she was going to allow us watch. This could have been any random day. But it would be during our school holiday period and so The Middle Door would have been left open even though it was a weekday. No-one was going to accuse her of depriving us of entertainment so every day she would let us see a few movies. Only problem was, we saw the same movies over and again. Sometimes the mix would be changed, but the entire pool was not more than twenty or two-dozen put together. This was regardless of the fact that we had over a hundred titles in our parents’ bedroom. Real films. Action, horror, and all of that. But no. Our playlist had to be ‘safe’, so that we would not learn ‘bad things’.
Robocop was for one of my brothers. Nagin was for my sister – a Bollywood fan till date. The Sound of Music was for us all; just because in my generation all the parents conspired to ensure that their children watched The Sound of Music AT LEAST seventy-two times per week. You cannot convince me otherwise. Rosie and Jim was certainly punishment for all our childhood crimes; real and perceived, because never for a second did that thing entertain any of us. Not. One. Second.
“Mummy, can we watch Inglorious Bastards?”
“Don’t use dirty words in my house!”
“But it is just the name of a film.”
“I blame your father for letting you watch it the first time. If you don’t want these ones then I will take them back and lock that middle door, you can spend the rest of the day in your room and read your books.”
Lock middle-door ke? On a holiday? That settled it. We had our four films for the day. Once in a while, for music, she would throw in “Now that’s what I call Music”, or some “Paul Simon in Graceland” thing which I frankly cared little for. And that was our life. We were not to mimic the American life – being rude and overly ambitious with our socio-cultural ideas. So every film we watched was censored, to be certain that we were learning the right values. We did pick up a few good values from the Indian films we were allowed to watch too. Belly-dancing is a form of exercise, is it not? But I digress.
So there’s just so many times in your childhood that you can see The Sound of Music before you actually feel your brain cells dying. Pop. Pop. Pop. That is the sound of brain cells dying. I know, because many of mine suffered this fate and this is why I am anti-social today. The Sound of Music ruined me for you.
We knew every word. Every word I say. Every song in it, we knew.
And boy, did we sing those songs. Our parents were proud of our collective singing ability and I swear I could see it in their eyes that they hoped for a band of ‘Njoku family singers’ some day. Lame as the band-name sounded, there would have been no changing it. After all, the’ Vontrapp Family Singers’ was the template and they were the perfect role models. A-ha! Wait-a-minoot mum, you want us to be like the Vontrapps?
“They obeyed their father, they were well-behaved”
“But mummy, that was a problem – Maria came and changed all that.”
“She did not change their obedience and their good behavior. She brought back singing into the house, that is all. Have you people washed plate this evening sef?”
That was not a very honest analysis, she knew it, I knew it. We all knew it. But in those days I knew nothing about subtext, plot and sub-plot – all that fancy stuff that I have to employ as a television writer these days. Things which if I had known way earlier, I could have armed myself with and gone to battle with the mother. Break down the subject, explain why the Vontrapp children’s situation was certainly not one for our family to aspire to. Those kids were psychologically oppressed. They were repressed. They were full of resentment. How, how, how, was that anything nice?! Of course this is coming a few decades too late but there you go – I’ve said it, mum. Vontrapp who?
Now don’t get me wrong. There were things about The Sound of Music that I did like, nay love, and in-fact admire greatly and even want for myself. First was Gretl’s toes. Do you remember that scene in the market where they went with Maria and whilst having a grand old time, they juggled some tomatoes (or some other red and fleshy thing)? When it was Gretl’s turn, she messed it up and a tomato fell splat at her feet. And then we saw her toes. Quite widely spaced and looking lovingly silly in her shoes. I wanted those toes. There were days where I would pray to have those toes. I just really wanted to see how they would look in my sandals. Oh well.
There was also the simple fact that they allowed themselves to change. I did not think this thought this succinctly but I was moved by how they let themselves love their father properly after Maria came into their lives. They let themselves sing. They did not resist change. They changed for the better. I wanted that. I wanted to be renewed. To do something about my boring life. Something big enough to cause a stir but which would still be in context, per my family life and our economics. Nothing too drastic at all.
I decided to change my accent.
An embargo had been placed on ‘being’ American. But nobody said anything about speaking like an American. I wanted to speak like an American. I wanted to greatly emphasize my THes, let my Ts disappear a ‘liroo’ bit whenever they were in the middle of a word and encountered a vowel therein. I wanted my ‘not’ to sound like ‘naat’. I liked it when my mum returned from New York and was throwing ‘gonna’ and ‘wanna’ about the place. She even stopped saying ‘dustbin’ and started saying ‘trash’. But I wanted to do it even better. Like the Vontrapp Children learned to sing together via the basics of the tonic sol-fa, I decided that I and my siblings were going to learn to speak American by deliberate effort, together, yay! We would dig into our memories of our favourite American sit-com stars and we would mimic them. We would become the envy of our classmates, and our neighbours would be thoroughly jealous. I told my siblings about it and scored a few eye-rolls and tired sighs but yes, they agreed, and so we had a plan.
“When do you want us to start?”, asked my sister, to whom everything was a potential drama sketch. Ngozi would act ‘drama’ with anyone, any time of the day. “Let’s say I’m the mother and you’re my daughter…” she would start. And if her playmate was not feeling that setup and decided that she wanted to be the mother instead and Ngozi the car or the TV set, my sister would go for it. She was a trooper and irritated as she was by my idea, she was game.
So this day, dad is out of town. Mum has somewhere to go to. She takes our brother with her and tells us they will be back a little late. We are home with our aunty. We like it, because Aunty is not strict like mum. She gets us to do all the required hygiene business in the evening. Bath, brush, cover our necks and faces with ‘dusting powder’. Beautiful. Then she lets us take a huge mattress into the living room so we can have a jolly good time. And this is what we do.
“Nky, should we not start this night?” asks Ngozi, during one of the lulls that punctuated our fun-and-games.
“Our Americana nooow, abi you have forgotten?”
“But Ugo is not here”.
I want us all to do this and am therefore hesitant to exclude one member of the team. I consider how painful it would be for him to turn out being the only one who cannot speak Americana. I decide that it would be unfair. But we soon run out of fun things to do and so I backtrack, swallow my hesitation and declare that the time has now come. From this moment on, we will not speak ‘like this’ anymore. We will speak like Americans. Mum and Ugo will come home and be proud of us. Dad will show us off to his friends. Never mind all that talk about being true to your roots. Dad cannot pretend that he doesn’t want children who speak ‘well’.
“You canna call my name like thaa anymorrr. You have to call it like en Amerikehn, yah?”
“Inkirroo, ken you please excoose me, I kent see the telly no more…”
“Hey you guyz, I’m kinda hangry, maybe we ken ask aunty to let us have some cookies?”
“Oku gbakwa cookies” (may fire burn those cookies), is what my aunty would have said. But she was in the bedroom, maybe reading her boyfriend’s love-letter. Wetin concern her?
And so we continue into the night. We even modify our laughter. Every time we find something to laugh about, we raise both hands, bend them at the wrists, pointing in opposite directions and then flap them one time, heavily, underlining our extremely tickled state as we cackle with ‘poise’.
Then it is eleven o’clock. Mum and brother are not yet home.
“What is going aan? When are they coming beck?”
“Mum said they would be kinda late.”
“But this is too late, eleven oh clack?”
“Damn, it is late”.
So we calm down a little bit, limiting our new accent to comments about what is happening on television. Soon, these comments become few and far between as the youngest two drift off to sleep and I and Ngozi stay awake, wondering what is happening with our mother and brother. By now the accent has made its way to oblivion and I am standing at the window, looking through it, worried sick. It is One o’ clock in the morning and my brother and mother are still not back.
“Ngo, me I’m worried o, where exactly did they say they were going?”
“I can’t remember. Didn’t mummy tell you?”
“She told aunty but that one is sleeping now, if somebody wakes her up she can even slap somebody’s face sef”.
“But they will be fine, don’t worry. Me, sleep is catching me.”
And so she picks a couch and goes off to sleep. I am left standing at the window until I start hearing my neighbours trooping down the stairs. They are chatting slowly, their voices thick with sleep. They are on their way to the common tap where they will proceed to fetch water to start the day with. It is five am! Then the tears come pouring down my face.
Where is my mother? Where is my brother?
“Nk’iru., what are you doing there?”
I startle awake and bump my glasses against the burglary proofing. One arm is sitting outside one of the window louvers and the angle is a bit unnatural. My palm tingles. I withdraw my hand gently.
“I was waiting for you people, where did you go?”
Mum unlocks the door from outside and Ugo stumbles in, dead with sleep. Mum locks the door from the inside and peers at my face.
“Were you crying?”
Embarrassed, I drag the back of my palm across my face, unbalancing my glasses, as I wipe away what is left of my tears. I remember sobbing rather hotly as I conjured up all kinds of possibilities as to what might have happened to my mum and brother.
“I didn’t know where you people went, I was afraid. I have not even slept, I just dozed now-now.”
My brother is already squeezed between the others on the mattress as mum disengages wristwatch, hair ruffle, ear-rings.
“Are you serious? You haven’t slept? You’ve been standing at the window siiince?”
I nod, my demeanor no longer sleepy. I have drummed up a sufficiently offended air in readiness to be congratulated for my good deed, and apologized to for having been kept up so late.
“That is because you don’t hear word. Your ear is blocked.”
Whaaat?! This? From a woman whose welfare I had been so worried about that I had abandoned my American-accent project without even thinking about it?
“But mummy –“
“Tah, mafren, I told you we were going to Surulere for a wake-keeping. Your father lost his uncle, have you forgotten?”
No I have not, but –
“ – what are you always thinking about sef? That your head is full of rubbish. You have been reading all those stupid Lobsang Rampa books again, atink?”
“Daddy said he believes that Lobsang Rampa’s books are just fiction and that – ”
“- sharrap, stop talking when I’m talking. Where do you think you are – America? You’re lucky I’m tired. Now you better go and sleep before I give you broom to start sweeping.”