Book Excerpt: The Middle Daughter
Within six months Mother not only buys the land, she also builds what she calls her ‘dream clinic’. Even for Mother, it is an incredible feat to pull off, Aunty Enuka says. Mother says the only difference between an empty plot and a mansion is money and not time. ‘Contractors can work miracles when there’s enough kudi to act as incentive,’ she says.
Nani and Ugo dress in identical dresses with splashes of vibrant yellow and green for the ribbon- cutting ceremony. A representative from the Ministry of Health, a thin man in a safari suit and a red cap, gives a lengthy speech about service and commitment and good citizenship. While cameras click and flash, he is handed a pair of scissors with which to cut the ribbon tied around the front gate. He is applauded as if he has performed a magic trick, and Mother, radiant in a dress that billows out at the waist, says how much it means for her to be able to ‘give back to society in this way’ and how sad she is that her husband is not alive to celebrate with her but she knows that he is ‘with us all today in spirit. Please eat and be merry.’
She spreads her hands, as if they were angel wings, in the direction of the tent where six uniformed young men stand behind a table lined with food, waiting to serve. Ugo beams as her mother leads the way, walking daintily, carefully in those heels which bring her to Nani’s five-foot-seven height. Ugo is so proud of her.
The two girls walk the grounds, too full of happiness to eat, admiring the buildings, Nani stopping every other minute to run her hands over the flowers that bloom all over the compound. The clinic, despite the intense colouring of the buildings (fuchsia and red like plastic Lego houses) reminds Ugo of the convent she and her sisters went to with their mother years ago, before Mother lost her faith, for a few days of retreat.
Ugo hated it because they had to be mostly silent for the two days they were there. When she complained, Mother told them it was good to practise silence, to learn at a young age to meditate, to leave the chaos and the noise behind ‘and listen to the stillness within’. Later, in America, Ugo will think of this silence often, surrounded as she would be by silence, a neighbourhood in meditation. Nothing but the noise of dogs barking, no neighbours coming to the door, no loud parties to celebrate a new job, a new baby, a new car. Nothing at all like Enugu. She will decide that she doesn’t like silence.
Like the convent, Mother’s clinic is a row of bungalows, each with a neatly manicured lawn. There is a high fence for privacy and a gate with ‘Rejoice Maternity Clinic’ inscribed on top of it in huge letters. Beside the gate is a billboard with the name of the clinic painted above four smiling, pregnant women. The way they smile, they might have been advertising toothpaste.
Rejoice Maternity grows so much that within a year Mother has become one of the richest women in Enugu. She starts talking of expanding, setting up in other cities, employing more doctors, ‘All these young graduates who can’t get a job even with their medical degrees!’
The house is always overrun with people. Graduates with their diplomas in manila envelopes looking for work as nurses, as assistant nurses, as doctors; pregnant women who come for advice and friends of friends of friends asking for favours, bringing tales of children whom they can no longer afford to keep at school without assistance. Mother tries to help them all. A job here. A job there. A maternity bed in her clinic here. A scholarship there. Haba! Mother sha is a saint. Period. Number 47 begins to appear to Ugo like an extension of the clinic.
The house is besieged almost on a daily basis by mostly young women, some of whom are visibly pregnant and for whom Ugo and Nani have to leave the sitting room so that they can chat with Mother. Sometimes her nurses accompany the women to the house. Mother begins parking her cars outside, even her beloved Mercedes-Benz. The garage is turned into a storeroom where boxes of infant formula, BournVita and tins of milk and custard are stacked.
A big truck brings a new delivery every month and the gateman offloads the cartons, singing as he does so because usually Mother lets him keep a carton of tinned milk, two big tins of BournVita and a tin of custard for his family. Ugo loves that her mother is generous in that way. She smiles each time the gateman tells her, ‘Your mama na good woman. God go bless am well-well. I never work for any person wey get big heart like your mama heart. Her heart big like ocean!’ Mother is Ugo’s role model; the kind of person Ugo wants to be.
The food is for the clinic’s patients. ‘Pregnant women need to eat well and many of those who come to me cannot afford to do so,’ Mother says when Ugo asks her.
One of the young women who comes to see Mother spends almost three months at the house, occupying the guest room. She is quiet and doesn’t look much older than Ugo. She is skinny with a protruding lump taking over her body. Ugo and Nani become used to smelling the Dettol with which she cleans everything: her body, the bathroom, the floor of the guest room.
‘Haba! She cleans and cleans. And she looks like she has kwashiorkor,’ Ugo tells Mother.
Nani asks why a girl so young is pregnant. Mother says the girl was ‘taken advantage of by an older man’ but cannot tell her family of the pregnancy until she has had the baby.
‘Where is her family?’ Ugo asks. ‘Owerri,’ Mother says.
The girl ran away from home to the man responsible once she realised she was pregnant but he just gave her some money and put her on a bus to make the three-hour trip to Enugu to find the woman he’d heard could help her.
‘My fame is spreading!’ Mother looks so pleased with herself as she says it, the delight beaming off her face as if it has been slathered in coconut oil.
‘Why did you agree to take care of her?’ Ugo asks. She is so in awe of her mother, of how wealthy she is, of how giving she is. True-true, Mother is a superstar sha ooo.
‘She has nowhere else to go,’ Mother says in a way that suggests she doesn’t want to discuss this further, as if her generosity embarrasses her.
For days, Ugo speaks of nothing but Mother’s munificence. The clinics she will build, the holidays she will be able to send them on. Later, in a future Ugo cannot yet see, she and Mother will leave for the US. There will be no new clinics. And she and Nani will not speak for many years.
Chika Unigwe is a Guest Contributor for Panorama
Chika Unigwe is Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College and the author of several celebrated works of fiction including On Black Sisters’ Street, which won the NLNG Prize for Literature, and most recently the short story collection Better Never Than Late (2019).
The Middle Daughter by Chika Unigwe is published by Canongate (£16.99). Available to order from Bookshop.org.