Weekends at my house are usually not a big deal. It was a day when we all slept in except for my Dad who was usually up as early as 5:30am for a prayer meeting with some other men from church. He would be back at 6:30 and sleep in till around 8:30. My mum would get up next at around 6:30 to start breakfast and a few chores. I was the light sleeper of the family and would wake up when my dad left, when mum woke up and when dad came back but I not come out of my room until 7:30. My brothers woke up when they did. Sometimes it was earlier than everyone else, sometimes it wasn’t until the sweet smell of Saturday akara and papfilled the house. After breakfast, we would have chores. I usually fixed my room, helped mummy with the laundry and did the dishes. My brothers took care of the cars with Daddy and mowed the lawn. After chores we could all go back to sleep and just laze around the rest of the day. I was so very used to this routine that when it was occasionally disturbed I had a hard time catching on. So you can imagine my consternation when mummy came home on Friday with an invite from Mrs. Jaunty- a member of our inter-dominational congregation, the same woman who had called my brothers ‘fraternal’- for her daughter’s 13th birthday.
Let me explain. We had known Mrs. Jaunty for about 4 years since she joined the church. She was one of those women who had something…peculiar about them. Let’s call it what it is and say she was eccentric. Of course before I knew the meaning of the word I would describe her as odd, weird, strange, to be avoided and observed from a distance. My brothers had said as much once and Daddy had scolded them reminding them how wrong it was to judge anyone especially when you didn’t know their stories. I had felt guilty and immediately promised myself that I would only think nice things about her. I had never met her husband but Mrs. Jaunty had a daughter she named Zipporah. I had had to remind myself of my previous promise when I heard the girl’s name. Our Sunday school teacher had once mentioned that it was a Jewish name from Moses’ wife in the Old Testament.
Zipporah was the most fragile girl I had ever laid eyes on. She was skinny and short with eyes too large for her face. I didn’t believe she was the same age as my brothers when I first met her and you had to feel a little pity for her when you saw her. There was nothing categorically wrong with her. She walked and talked normal and you couldn’t quite pin point her with a disease but her Mum did mention that she had been through a couple of life threatening encounters. I wasn’t curious as to what those encounters were. She was pretty when she smiled which was a lot and she had a way of looking at you as if she could tell exactly what you were thinking. I did not like feeling like someone knew what I was thinking and so needless to say, we weren’t best friends. Mrs. Jaunty always did something special for Zipporah’s birthday. They usually took trips to exotic locations. I knew this because they would come back to church in matching outfits for thanksgiving where Mrs. Jaunty would explain that every year of her baby’s life was to be celebrated. At Sunday school on such Sundays we would be given birthday packages to celebrate with Zipporah. I always joined in the birthday song and said a big amen to the birthday prayer for her. I wished her well but I did not expect we would ever be closer than that.
So when mummy brought home the invite that day, I wondered what had happened to the yearly mother-daughter ritual and if becoming a teenager was one of those big birthdays you celebrated. I told mummy it was too last minute. The birthday was the next day. Our Saturday ritual would be ruined! But she would have none of it. She explained she had forgotten, Mrs. Jaunty had given her the invite when she ran into her at the supermarket on Wednesday and there really was no excuse not to go. I argued she was not my age and mummy retorted that I shouldn’t have been taking her birthday treats for the last four years if that was a problem. My brothers were thoroughly enjoying this. They encouraged that I should go saying that I never went anywhere anyway. I really did not have a good reason not to attend Zipporah’s birthday party I just had a…feeling. Mummy picked out a dress for me to wear and by 1pm that Saturday instead of sleeping in or reading a good novel or watching TV; I was on my way to the Jaunty’s. I rode shot gun and my brothers took the back seat just happy to go someplace.
The Jaunty’s lived on an upscale neighborhood a ways from our own house, the type that had electric gates and proper lawns. Mummy had never been to visit them before and she read the directions on the invite stopping frequently to ask passersby for help. I knew the house had to be something special but nothing could have prepared me for the sight that greeted us when we pulled up at the entrance of the house. The Jauntys lived in a mansion! -One with brick walls and archways and glass panels. Mummy was a little taken aback as well. I saw her gape before catching herself. She muttered an ‘oh wow’ and made to get out of the car. My brothers quickly regained their composure and straightened their jeans. I felt a little underdressed myself in the pink and white wrap dress mummy had picked out for me. The type Lanre had called ‘help me tie am’. I felt like a silly little girl which was exactly what I was.
The lawn of the mansion which was where the party was held was teeming with children of all ages as well as a few adults. Children running, seating, screaming, crying, eating. It was by far the biggest birthday party I had ever been to. Mummy asked us to come say hello to the celebrant and we immediately spotted Mrs. Jaunty with a small group of women. You couldn’t miss her for she was dressed in something she called a tea gown-a green mass of ruffles and flowers with layers and layers. She looked like something from the 1800s which I assumed was exactly the theme she was trying to achieve. I heard Alex chortle behind me and mummy reached out as if to spank him. Mrs. Jaunty, as usual, was delighted to see us. She played the perfect hostess and immediately told us to help ourselves to whatever we wanted. She introduced one of the three women as her sister. The woman reminded me of my brothers. She bore no resemblance to Mrs. Jaunty. She had a much larger frame, was slightly overweight with a very ‘motherly’ air about her. Her eyes squinted when she smiled which she did when she said hello to us.
Mrs. Jaunty called out to Zipporah and I was the one to say ‘happy birthday’ before my brothers chimed in. mummy gave her a big hug. Zipporah was in the pink version of her mum’s dress. I couldn’t tell for sure if the choice in color made it more bearable to look at, or maybe I just couldn’t imagine that dress being even more obscene. She said ‘thank you’ with a smile and I handed over the store wrapped present (a bag of toiletries) we had picked up earlier.
Mummy left almost immediately but not before telling us to have fun and promising to pick us up after she had run a few errands. My brothers quickly found some of their friends from church and before long I was standing alone. I saw a couple of my Sunday school mates too and went to join them at a game they were playing. I helped myself to some snacks and even answered a few riddles.
After my third cup of punch, I had to use the bathroom. I have to admit that I might have overdone it a little but the blue liquid must have had an ingredient that kept you coming back for more. I found Mrs. Jaunty’s sister cutting a slice of cake and I asked her where I could find the rest room. She told me to go inside the house. I thanked her and made for the door.
I admit I had been a little curious about the Jaunty mansion ever since mummy’s car had pulled up in front of it and it was every bit as I’d imagined. Something about it brought the- although I knew little or nothing about it- ‘Victorian era’ to mind. There were a few adults in the living room and wrapped presents were strewn on the marble floors. I asked a girl I had seen with Zipporah earlier if she knew where the rest room was and she pointed to a wooden door behind her. I walked on and knocked on the door. A voice shouted back ‘someone here’. I was getting more pressed now and I reaffirmed my theory about a secret ingredient in the punch that made you go back for more; pee a lot and then go back for more. I waited a few minutes and the occupant of the rest room still wouldn’t come out.
‘Is someone there?’ I turned to see the Zipporah’s friend from before. I nodded yes. ‘You could go upstairs’, she pointed to the stairs, ‘there are other bathrooms there’. Bless her heart! I thought. She would never know I had been looking for an excuse to go up the winding stairs that led to whatever they led too anyway. I thanked her again and made for the stairs a little frantically this time because I had to pee so badly. I opened one of four identical wooden doors that lined up the hall way. I knocked and went in. the bathroom was sparkling. It reminded me of the time Daddy had attended a conference in Abuja and we had stayed in a five star hotel. I quickly did my business but spent a little time exploring all that could be explored. By the time I had washed my hands and dried them the fourth time, I was ready to go. I was about to go back down the stairs when I saw that the door to the adjoining room was slightly open. I have no idea what propelled me to go in that day or if I had any logical explanation for doing so but I found myself drawn into the room (yes, I finally decided to explain it with some mystique).
I entered the room gingerly and looked around. It was pink. With flowers painted on the walls and dolls everywhere. This had to be Zipporah’s room. I was proven right by the pictures of her- about a dozen of them on the mantle. When I saw a framed picture of a bubbly little girl that had to be about five years old, I was taken aback. If this was Zipporah, something must have happened to make her look so different now. I started when I sighted a pink image at the corner. Once again as though in a trance, I moved closer to check out what it was. I gaped when I stood face to face with the tallest cake I had ever laid eyes on. It was only a few inches shorter than myself in the shape of a doll (no surprise) in a pink tea dress very much like Zipporah’s. I’m not sure how long I stood there just staring at it and I can’t tell for certain if I was impressed or slightly disturbed but I took in every detail; the dark hair, the eerily life like eyes, the uncanny resemblance to the celebrant. I admit it was a little unsettling.
I was turning to leave when I tripped over one of the many dolls in the room. I grabbed the dresser for balance and my hands fell on something sharp, I yelped and quickly retreated falling face down and kicking something before I landed. I heard a small thud and slowly sat up. I was sure I had gotten myself a small bruise on my face and my palm was stinging. I turned around and there lying on the floor was the head of Zipporah’s doll birthday cake. My lips parted in horror as I watched the body crack at the waist and slowly drop to the floor. My first thoughts- and they took quite a while to form- were that the ground would open up and hide me for a while. Then I prayed frantically that this was a dream or that the cake would just up and mend itself. I felt as though I had single handedly butchered a person. I just stood there, eyes wide, heart pounding in an utter and complete state of shock.
I’m not quite sure how I got home that day. Daddy mentioned once that we sometimes unconsciously block out some events from our minds. And that was exactly what I did. I don’t remember anyone at home mentioning the unfortunate events that had unfolded that day for the rest of the week or maybe I blocked out that part too. It was hard to believe they were ignored, given that my brothers were who they were.
I avoided Zipporah in church as much as I could, for I was sure that that day the poor girl had had another life threatening encounter. And although I argued that the cake was a bit of an odd choice for a thirteen year old, I simply could not imagine anything worse than having your birthday surprise crumble into an unsalvageable mess. I apologized in person to Mrs. Jaunty in church and she laughed it off as one of those things but I didn’t expect to be invited to the mansion anytime soon.
After that weekend, I had my normal Saturday routine back. I think we all silently agreed I was never to meant break the Saturday ritual!