Nneoma Sally 1 year ago
@Barbiesally 23 min read Write a comment #short-stories

Life Outside The Palace

Perception depends on the eye of the viewer. As a house help in a privileged family, what do you think your perception of your helper (madam/ògá) would be?

I hovered around Chisom as she did some farm work. It's the first week of the rainy season and we are yet to start farming. I watched as she placed the cassava stem in the soil, in a slanted position. She said that it would easily facilitate the growth of the cassava, it would be easy to plant a lot of cassava stems if they were slanted away from each other, opposite from one another. I have forgotten how to plant cassava. We didn't plant cassava in my previous house. We planted simple crops like maize, okra, cocoyam, fluted pumpkin, and scent leaf. The farm wasn't as large as grandma's farm. Instead, it took up a quarter of the compound, enough to feed a family of six for a few months.

I had to pound the ekwu, and palm nut to make palm oil for sale but we barely have enough ekwu to pound. We sell our oil in small blue gallons, enough to get at least one thousand naira per day. I was tired but I couldn't complain. Sometimes, I think about what it would have been like if I wasn't taken away. Jennifer had told me that it would happen back in the large all-modern kitchen. It had the standard glass kitchen units, a gas cooker that has a connecting oven at the bottom, the energy retaining bulb high up in the ceiling, a fridge, a dishwasher, and all whatnot. The kitchen was painted a light blue and at the time, Jennifer seemed like a beacon of God's light. She shone so brightly that I've always thought she would be with me forever. I miss her funny moments but she's usually pessimistic. When her mum had warned me for the last time not to sleep on the job, she told me that if I left their house, I would find it hard to cope; It would take me some time to get used to life outside her home. I didn't agree with her. In case she has forgotten, they were my family; it would be easy to cope with them.

Again, I was wrong. Jennifer was someone that had this knack for sensing people's emotions. She's not usually wrong but I would be a bullfrog to admit that she's usually right. She was never deterred. Whenever she senses my feelings, she would bluntly state them without a filter. She's usually blunt to a fault. In my opinion, that is a fault of hers. I have always felt special. I wasn't like any of her siblings. I knew for a fact that they were prettier than me but I was smarter than them. At least, that was what I thought until I came here. I called Jennifer immediately after I landed. Seeing the mud house and thatched roof made me feel uncomfortable. I put up a smile because they were my family. I had told Jennifer that I had her number and she doubted that I did. That was one thing with her, she forgets easily. She had told me once when I asked her and I had written it down in my diary; the diary I kept to write about my insecurities.

I called her and she answered in that masculine voice of hers. Her voice suggested that she was happy for me, telling me to think for myself now that I have arrived in my hometown. I wanted her to remember me as the proud girl that I have always been. I told her that my sister was prettier than me, unlike what she told me. She had told me that I wouldn't know that. She told me that I have lived with them for a long time and I only remember my siblings based on how I felt about them before. She was right.

Chisom is beautiful but she wasn't what I had thought she was. She was different. The hard times, since my father died, had knocked her from her usual self. I could see it in the way she tries to be better every day. I could see it in the frown lines that covered her face, in the freckles on her cheeks, and how dark her skin has become. She has changed entirely, more subdued except when she's angry. I was angry at Jennifer and my sister. I wanted to prove her wrong but she was right.

We didn't have a shop like I thought we did. While I was with Jennifer, I thought about all I would do to help my family in case Jennifer's mum takes me home. Jennifer helped me with my ideas. At first, she supported me but then, she told me one day, “What if you go back and everything is not as it was like when you were there?”I was angry. I didn't like how pessimistic she was. I told her that I knew my relatives. They would help me. She had told me that it wasn't possible. Someone can't help someone else's family unless there's something in return or that person is generous to a fault. I thought she didn't want me to progress. She's always negative because she has her problems too, which she hasn't solved yet. I knew she would look for a way. She always does but it doesn't mean that her way is authentic.

I swept the house. I was almost useless in the house. My siblings could work without fail from morning till night but I was a lost cause. It doesn't mean that grandma banned me from working. They gave me things to do and no matter how tired I was, I still worked with them. I sat on the veranda watching as Ebuka shaved grandma's hair with a rusted razor. I wasn't the same either. Before I left my village, I'd always viewed Chisom in that blinding light like I saw Jennifer. Everything she did was marvelous in my eyes. When I went to Jennifer's house, I was so happy to have someone to talk to about how I felt about my elder sister. Jennifer indulged me for a while, laughing when she should laugh, giving me sympathy when it was needed, or making an awe sound when I talked about something amazing Chisom did.

I hadn't thought about how stupid I might have sounded to Jennifer. She never told me that I sounded stupid. Instead, she told me that she understood how I felt only that I said everything from my point of view. It might not be what it seemed from everyone's perspective. Ever since then, I have tried to understand my family. It was hard because I could see the little things I didn't notice before. Jennifer and her siblings gushed about eating goat meat every Christmas. Jennifer passed her JAMB and screening exams and entered the university. Her immediate younger brother was so intelligent that her mother had asked me why I would get an F in my results. Every one of them seemed like a shining star and my family seemed like a dull glow.

I hated that I thought about my family that way. They were intelligent too. We didn't eat goat meat but we were happy on Christmas day. All these misgivings made me talk rudely to Jennifer once. I told her that her family traditions were boring and I didn't understand why they had to cook food in the morning, roast goats in the afternoon, and still, cook dinner at the night. Cooking was exhausting and tiresome and eating goat meat every year was bothersome. She was annoyed at me and she didn't speak to me for the entire day. I was happy that I had annoyed her. She was annoying too. How dare she try to turn me against my own family, I thought. At the night, we have this tradition of watching a movie Jennifer would download on her phone. We would cluster on Jennifer's large bed in her room and watch it. In the end, we will talk about it and laugh. She said that we should do it for fun and it was fun, except I was exempted from watching that day. She told me that since I thought her family's traditions were boring, wasn't watching a new movie on her phone boring too. I was angry with her. This time, I refused to talk to her. She didn't talk to me either. I couldn't believe she would do that to me. I've always thought that she would take my side no matter what but she didn't this time.

In this instance, I understand why she did that. If you stay away from home for a long time, your feelings always come crashing down as Jennifer said. It's easy to judge something because you are there and also high in so many similar emotions but when you leave that area, the feelings will come back with clarity. I understood everything that happened. Jennifer wasn't as pessimistic as I thought she was. She was realistic, seeing the world with different eyes. I don't see her as a blinding light anymore but I understand that she wasn't all-knowing like I thought she was.

Chisom had gone to school along with my other siblings. They were able to scrap money for school and I am happy for them, except I can't go to school. Grandma hasn't anticipated my return and she didn't have enough money from her opka, bambara beans pudding sells to sponsor me. Instead, every morning, I take a barrel of okpa to a nearby school to sell and students would buy them from me. I felt the bitter bit of anger and jealousy that came with it. I understood very well why she couldn't sponsor me but that doesn't mean that I could live with it. Most of my former friends that were in the village before I left were no longer there but I have seen one or two in school. I was embarrassed by my situation but I was tough. Adaobl looked at me and asked, in that self-righteous manner,

“Amara, what are you doing here?” “Selling okpa. Do I look like I am dancing?” I replied. “Why aren't you in school?” she asked in a demeaning manner. I hissed and said, “Do you want to buy okpa or not?” “I will buy oh but the last time I heard about you, you were in some rich man's house,” she said. “That's none of your business,” I said. She was right. I was supposed to be in a rich man's house but I wasn't. At the time, I didn't think it was my fault. Jennifer's mum was always looking for something to say about me and I thought she just didn't want me to stay. She wanted me gone. I was scared of leaving but Jennifer assured me that I shouldn't. I was going home and I shouldn't be afraid. Instead, I should prepare for when I would be leaving. I did prepare but preparing wouldn't have helped. It didn't prepare me for what I have seen and gone through ever since I left her house.

Jennifer was a pretty girl. Anything she does reflects on that aspect. She's pretty but she's never worked to be prettier. I was happy that she didn't. I wasn't as pretty as either of her siblings. I was short, dark, and chubby, which am always reminded of at school and in Jennifer's home. At school, the boys would make fun of me and the girls would laugh at me but I am a tough girl. At home, her brothers would remind me that I could carry a gallon of water because I was plumpy which I found very hurtful. After all, I liked her immediate younger brother. He's the epitome of handsome and he's a man of few words. He's not as insulting as his immediate junior brother but sometimes, he says some hurtful things for reasons that I find it hard not to agree with him. Her mother always thought that I ate food outside meal times which I never did. I complained to Jennifer about all this except her immediate brother's situation and she told me that I shouldn't mind anyone. The quote she gave me that day still resonates in my mind, a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of Theodore Roosevelt and it says: no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

She also told me that I wasn't fat like they called me, I was chubby or plumpy. I used that to describe myself. I wanted to feel wanted like am sure Jennifer's younger sister, Caitlin felt. She's very pretty and very quiet. She's not allowed to do anything except maybe sweep the house or the compound and I hated her. She usually comes home with stories about how boys were attracted to her. It's easy to see it, the boys flirting with her, trying to get to know her but I didn't want to see it. Instead, I made up stories of my own. Before I had a crush on Jennifer's immediate younger brother, I had a crush on a boy at school. His name was Chinedu and he's also very handsome. It's funny because Chinedu is younger than me by a year but I still had a crush on him because we were in the same class.

He had a friend that usually glanced at me at odd hours of the day and I thought that his friend had a crush on me. I was happy that he did. It showed that I could attract men just like Caitlin. I told her stories about many men I encountered on the road. As usual, Jennifer listened while she was cooking. She laughed when she was supposed to laugh, she gave me sympathy when she was supposed to and she was in awe when she was supposed to. Her sister did the same thing too. They were like twins listening to and enjoying my stories. Jennifer rarely gives us stories about her encounters with men except when she wanted advice and she thinks small children with small minds would give out simple advice.

Sometimes, I take her as a fool. She said that she prefers the single life, unlike the married ones that involve taking care of the husband and children. Her last boyfriend wasn't all that much. He was simple and understanding but he didn't give her money. She didn't demand it from him either and I thought she was a fool not to. Caitlin didn't have anything to say but I had a lot. I've always felt like I had the upper hand in relationship matters and I would bluntly tell her what I think. Unfortunately for me, she would hear me out, pick things she thought would benefit her, and then, she would tell me that I don't know anything about relationships. It didn't deter me. I kept on dishing to her what I thought about her relationships.

When I got back from school, grandma sent me to the deeper part of a forest to harvest cashew. She said that she wanted to fry cashew nuts to sell. I wanted to sell cashew and so, I decided to pluck enough cashew for me and grandma. I borrowed a barrow from our neighbors and took a blue polythene bag with me. I would try to fill the barrow and cover it with the polythene bag to avoid curious people from looking in. The cashew tree at Jennifer's house has not borne a single fruit but that's only because it was planted newly at the back of the house. Before December, the orange tree at Jennifer's house would have borne enough fruit to fill a barrow but Jennifer's family doesn't usually notice. They would only notice when the oranges fall from the tree or they find me licking one. Jennifer is usually not bothered by it but every other person finds it offensive. Why would someone who is not a member of the house lick their oranges? Sometimes, I do it to insult them. Who would see perfectly good oranges on the floor and wouldn't pick them? At a point, her brothers reported me and she told us that we should pick the ripe oranges and if I want to lick oranges, I should take the spoilt ones. It isn't right that no one is picking the oranges and I would pick them without letting anyone know. I hated this decision. Whenever she's around, I would pick whatever because she never asks me about it but her brothers do. Every time, I would have to show them the spoilt part of the orange to please them.

I sold the cashews. Grandma ended up taking almost every cashew I plucked and I barely got enough money from the ones I sold. I picked up my bag and walked back home. A jeep zoomed past me and I read the label before it was out of sight: God is good. Jennifer's family has a highlander. I wanted to tell her that buying a jeep is a waste of money but I didn't. I was happy that I got to ride in a jeep to school or to church. Every day, her brothers wash the jeep and every other car to perfection. Her dad didn't want dirt or mud in his cars. I like to watch her immediate younger brother wash the cars. On mornings like these, he's usually not wearing a shirt and his back muscles would flex as he worked. Her mum caught me once when I was staring at him and she asked me why I stared at him that way. I denied it. I told Jennifer what happened and she told me that if I did stare, then, I shouldn't but if I didn't, then, I should forget it. I didn't like her response. I wanted her to question why her mother asked me why I stared at her son. Her mother has always wanted to find a fault in me. The day I slept off while cooking dinner and it burnt, she asked me what had happened and I told her that I didn't know that the water had gone down. She insisted that I had slept off and within me, I asked her if it was a crime to sleep off. Jennifer shouted at me once when I ignored her father. Her younger sister, Danielle was crying and I felt like it was her fault. Everyone knows that Danielle was a troublemaker but instead, her father blamed me. I thought Jennifer would take my side but she didn't. She asked me why I behaved in that flippant manner. 

She believed that I'd never given her the respect she deserves ever since I came to her home, that I gave her brothers more respect than I gave her. I didn't believe her. At the time, I thought she wanted everyone to respect her because she's the eldest but now, I know what she meant. She wasn't lying when she said it. I only saw her as a god because she was nicer and could relate to what I was going through. She didn't tell me what I wanted to hear all the time but she always made me feel comfortable. It's a comfort that I miss nowadays. In my house, no one cares what happens. They know you are there but they believe that you can take care of yourself. I have to take care of myself now and forget the past but sometimes, when I see something related to Jennifer or her house, I would think, I hope you are not single, Jennifer, or maybe, your dream of being a rich woman would come true.

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