December was always a dusty, earth dried, skin-mottling month. The cold winds of the early mornings usually delivered the stench of the gutters right to your doorstep. You could smell Christmas in the air, always a confusing mix of smells but with a feeling that seemed new every year.
It was always a short holiday off school, but long enough for visits to the neighbors, to Aunties and Uncles who were not really Aunties or Uncles, to the village where a tourist of extended family would gather around her father’s old Peugeot 506 car animatedly, admiring the machine.
It was on of those visits to an Uncle who was not really an Uncle, that Aisha saw for the first time a film described as ‘Blue’.
With her big brother leading the way that morning, they had both walked the narrow dusty path to Uncle Stanley’s house accompanied only by a deafening silence between them. Aisha held a basket loaded with bottles of Coke, Fanta, and a bowl of rice and chicken in a lanky, too thin hand. Her brother had the earphones of his Walkman plugged to his ears, an act that spoke loudly of his desire to be left alone.
He was angry, hunching his shoulders and walking zig-zaggedly along the path in front of Aisha.
Their mother had scolded him just moments before, getting him off the wooden stool on which he’d been sitting by yanking him by up by the ear.
“You didn’t hear me calling you!” She’d yelled at him.
“That silly game you are always playing has turned you deaf yes?”
Then she proceeded to yank the electric cord of the game from behind the console, sending the TV into a quick death with only a bluish-black screen in its wake.
He had been in the middle of a game he loved, probably already winning points or maybe even almost at a finish.
“You and your sister should come and go to Uncle Stanley’s place to drop this rice.” Their mother ordered.
The boy had grumbled his way into a grey threadbare shirt, grabbed his Walkman and headed for the door without waiting to see if his sister was following behind.
Aisha could make sense of his anger and feared the consequences of trying to speak to him. She kept a short distance between them, juggling her attention between the growing pain in her arm from carrying the basket and the whistling of the birds in the big mango trees flanked on either side of the path.
When they arrived at Uncle Stanley’s, they met him standing just outside his door with his hands in his pockets observing his dog.
The dog was settled quietly in its cage, seemingly lethargic, and Uncle Stanley had worry deepening the lines of his face that had come with age.
It was hard to tell how old he was. He didn’t seem to go to work every morning like the other adults in the neighborhood, and his shirts were always buttoned wrongly as if somebody had forced him to cover up.
Aisha did not know how they were related, only that he came visiting once every other Saturday or Sunday when their parents were home. He never gave her crisp N5 notes like her other Uncles who came visiting.
“Ah! Christmas has come to my house o!” he said as they approached him, removing his hands from his pockets now, spreading them out, palms facing upwards.
“Uncle Stanley Good morning sir,” Aisha greeted in that sing-song type of voice you’d expect from a seven year old.
Her brother, Hassan slapped his palm loudly into Uncle Stanley’s in greeting. He was fifteen and liked to do things the way the older adults did them.
“I think this dog is sick again,” he muttered, half concerned.
“Eyaaa, poor Bingo.” Hassan said.
Aisha did not approve of the name. The brown furred dog appeared to need a bath more than it needed medication. She liked dogs, but not this one.
“How are your parents?” Uncle Stanley inquired, taking the basket from Aisha and relieving her of the burden that had weekend her lanky hands.
He opened the door and left it ajar as they followed behind.
“They are fine sir,” Aisha responded. Hassan had freed his ears of the earphones whose cord now hung out of his pocket where the Walkman was.
“Ha, thank God o, see film.” Hassan said delightedly, picking up the remote control and pushing on the volume button. It was clear that he had no plans of heading back home just yet as he now settled himself sloppily on one of the only two sofas in Uncle Stanley’s dingy apartment.
It was not like their house. Their house with its large front yard and marble floors.
Uncle Stanley’s carpets were ripping in several spots, and his house smelled of something that may have gone bad in his fridge. Fish? Stale beans? Perhaps a dead rat under one of these sofas.
Aisha shivered at the thought.
Slow, sensual music buzzed from the TV set now and Hassan appeared already fully engrossed.
Perhaps he was taking out his frustration on their mother by refusing to head back immediately?
Aisha knew she would have to wait it out with him as she was not allowed to walk by herself.
“Aisha come take this basket back for your mother,” Uncle Stanley called out from the kitchen.
It was a very small kitchen, with dirty pots atop one another just sitting in the sink begging to be washed.
The kitchen was humid and smelled worse than the parlor.
Uncle Stanley was standing against the sink, washing out the bowl their mother had sent, and letting the water run over the pots.
It was as though he wasn’t seeing them. When he was done, he dried the bowl with a dirty rag he pulled off the window bars, then used the same to mop his wet hands.
“Fine girl how are you?”
Aisha looked up at him then took her eyes away. He was staring down at her in a way that made her feel uncomfortable.
Suddenly he knelt before her and held her tiny shoulders firmly, looking at her as though he were searching for something he had lost.
Then he pulled her into a too-tight hug, rubbing his palm on her back.
Aisha could hear the TV, a man’s voice was saying, “Let’s get the money and fuck this bitch up.. “
Then Uncle Stanley released her from his hug with a jolt as though something had shocked him.
“I love you.” he said, “Say you love me too.”
Aisha had heard those words on TV a couple of times. Her father said the same to her and her mother did too. Mrs Sambo, her elementary teacher always made them say the words, “I love you but God loves you more” every morning at assembly.
However Uncle Stanley’s ‘I love you’ felt different to her. There was dread in his tone and she feared that if she did not respond, something bad would happen. Perhaps he would make her chew on the dead rat that now seemed to be right around the sink behind them.
‘I love you too,” Aisha muttered meekly.
“Good girl,” Uncle Stanley said and kissed her fully on her mouth. He sucked on it for a moment before releasing it.
“Good girl. Don’t let anyone know you do bad things.”
Then he got up, straightened his shirt with his palms and proceeded to the basket.
She just stood there, moping at her feet which where straddled in sandals, knotting and unknotting her fingers.
“Tell your mother I’d bring the mineral bottles after. Take,” He handed her the basket which now contained only the empty bowl.
Was she supposed to leave?
Aisha had become suddenly unaware what time do next.
When she began to walk back into his small parlor, she didn’t know if she was walking because her legs were carrying her or because Uncle Stanley’s hand was on her small back inching her forward.
“Uncle Stanley this is blue film abi?”
Hassan asked excitedly as they walked in. He didn’t appear angry anymore.
Uncle Stanley only laughed.
“Me I want to watch it finish o.” Hassan returned his attention to the TV now, seemingly oblivious of his sister who stood only a few feet away, holding the basket now with both hands.
“Come and sit Aisha,” Uncle Stanley motioned to a stool beside the unoccupied sofa and settled himself in it.
“You people can finish the film then go home, it’s almost over.”
Aisha noiselessly placed the basket on the floor in a corner by the door and made her way to the low wooden stool beside the sofa in which Uncle Stanley now occupied.
Uncle Stanley took her hand in his when she sat and squeezed firmly on it. Then he winked at her and returned his attention to the TV.
On the screen now, a man had just pushed a women onto a bed, yelling at her while she scrambled through the sheets.
He jumped into the bed and began to tear her clothes off, exposing her breasts. Aisha could not tell if the woman on TV was screaming in delight or fear. The woman’s face goes from smiling to pleading to agony.
The man began to kiss her savagely, on her mouth, her face, her exposed flesh.
Aisha looked away and as she did she came eyeball to eyeball with Uncle Stanley who’d been smiling down at her the whole time.
Feeling the dread again, she turned her face the other way, avoiding the TV, avoiding Uncle Stanley’s glare, and just focused on the basket by the door.
When they got home that afternoon they had explained to their mother that Uncle Stanley kept them welcome for longer.
They didn’t talk about coming home late because they had been watching a film and Aisha didn’t tell her Mother what Uncle Stanley had done.
She only went upstairs to her room, closed the door and refused to have dinner.
She was in there till the next morning.