Dawn is not the best time to visit Charity Hotel. If you come around the place at that time of the day for whatever reasons, what you see is a lie. You see peace and quiet, you see emptiness, and you will come to a conclusion, a wrong one.
Hotel Charity at dawn is an unrecognizably calm kettle of fish, a world of difference from the dimly lit cauldron of nefarious human activity it is at night. The main hall is a shell, with plastic chairs and tables scattered around, many of them overturned and left that way by revelers. The pockmarked cement floor is littered with all sorts—cigarette butts, empty bottles, bottle caps and crumpled plastic cups—testament to the orgy of consumption that was the night before. The silence is profound, as the two giant speakers responsible for booming out musical noise quietly recline in their corners, now ordinary wooden boxes in the absence of their earphone wearing puppet master, DJ Sabinus.
The regular troupe of garishly painted and scantily clad working girls is out of sight, in their rooms, slumbering in different beds as they recover from the exertions of the previous night. All the customers have crawled back to their different holes, save for one or two prime callers who have a special status that allows them to pass the night on the premises whenever they choose to.
Dawn meets everything and everyone in Charity Hotel recovering from the frenetic flexing of the night, just a few hours before they emerge from their different caves with batteries fully recharged, ready to begin preparations for yet another night of debauchery.
It is a cycle of life that never ends.
I’m an early riser, a habit I never appreciated until I got here. Regardless of how late I sleep at night or how tired I am when I hit the bed, my internal alarm wakes me up on the dot of five. It is a legacy from my days at home. For anybody born of a woman who happens to sleep under my mother’s roof, only death or ill health can excuse your being in bed after the devotion bell rings at five in the morning.
If you were not dead or indisposed and tarried a-bed after that bell goes, mama would find you, and her wake-up slap would make you wish you were either of the two. The worst part of it was that after prayers which were led by papa and usually dragged on for at least an hour, morning chores would immediately follow, so there was no chance at all for bleary eyes to find a few minutes of reprieve before the sun came up and it was time for school.
I used to hate being up so early. These days, however, I like waking up before the other inmates of Charity Hotel. I like the quietude, the freedom to lie peacefully in bed while different thoughts silently rush through my head. Dawn is the only time of day when you can listen to your own mind in this mad place.
On some days, I would just curl up in my bed and read; a second-hand novel someone left behind, a magazine, an old newspaper, anything at all. Reading is another habit born of my mother’s influence that has refused to die. Once in a while, when I lacked any other material, I would even read some verses from the Holy Bible, although that book no longer holds any special significance for me.
Today, memories of my mother roam in my head as it rests on the pillow I fashioned myself from a few of my old wrappers. Electricity is out as usual and the generator has been shut down, so as I lie on my back, torch in hand, staring at the stained plywood ceiling, I try to picture mama standing right in the center of this room.
As hard as I try, the image doesn’t fit.
The mother I remember would rather die. Everything here would kill her, and quickly too.
How will it be possible that my own mother, Deaconess Adanna Nkem Osotule, will miraculously find herself in an ashawo’s room where unmarried people copulate, right inside a den of iniquity where Lucifer’s children gather to frolic without any feelings of shame or restraint and not give up the ghost?
Imagine mama, standing in front of the partially torn and dirt smeared poster of a naked Kim Kardashian on the wall, looking at all my skimpy clothes and flimsy undies draped on the wall hanger, or catching a glimpse of the open red plastic chamber-pot in the corner which is overflowing with swollen condoms carrying the slowly dying seeds of yesterday’s customers.
Even her corpse would awaken, jump up and run outside if you brought it here to lie in state. She’s probably fuming at me in heaven for even daring the thought.
Sex was always a taboo best avoided as far my mother was concerned during her lifetime. She would shut down any discussion remotely connected with the topic. I remember the day I came home, fresh from Integrated Science class and full of questions about the workings of the female body and menstruation. Mama almost slapped me before she dumped her battle-worn bible on my laps and told me to read an entire chapter of the Psalms. Her faith in God was too strong for such human trivialities.
Once, I saw her hurriedly make a sign of the cross at the sight of two dogs mating on the street on our way to the market before turning away to find another route. Of course, I pretended I didn’t know why we chose another path, and I didn’t ask. I used to wonder how she got married to papa and why, how it was that they managed to have me if sex was such an oddity. The answers, unfortunately, came too late.
At this point, my father surreptitiously slipped into my thoughts.
Prophet Chuma Nathaniel Osotule. It is virtually impossible to remember the man without his bushy beard, which is funny, because before his illness he liked to shave clean every morning, and sometimes even twice in a single day. The damn thing only gained life after the debilitating stroke which left half his body useless. He and his beard became an illustration of contrasting fortunes, because as one grew frail, so did the other become more luxuriant.
That stroke had been the answer to my many nights of whispered prayers, prayers fearfully and hastily murmured as I lay in bed every night listening for footsteps which I knew would come.
They never failed.
From the first night when he forcefully took my maidenhead, after mama passed just after I turned fourteen, to that fateful night he fell like a log outside the main door, he always came. Even when my period was on, he would force his turgid flesh into my hands and mouth until he found relief. Afterwards, while watching as I cleaned off his slime, he would repeat the harsh mantra he always silenced me with.
“Tell anybody about this and I will kill you.”
There was always that light in his eyes when he said it, the same light that danced in his eyes when he delivered a sermon on Sundays at the Christ Is Coming Pentecostal Ministries where he was a god. Hypnotized by that light, the congregation nodded and swallowed every word that came out of his holy mouth. I did too until the stroke called his bluff.
Some other times, his tone would be softer, almost apologetic, as he explained how years of sexual starvation by mama had forced him into towing this perverted version of parenthood. It was during one of those sessions I learned how he had fornicated with mama as a virgin Sunday school teacher and she was his student. I was the result of that one error of judgment, and mama had turned to God immediately her folly became known.
Yes, they were hastily wedded to save both of them from shame, but sex was off the menu for most of the union, according to him. A part of me thinks both of them hated me in their own individual ways for how things turned out. Mama, because I reminded her of the one time she fell from grace, and Papa, because I was like the trigger that consigned him to marital purgatory.
He usually narrated the story like it should make me understand or it would ease my pain or erase the wretched way I felt about me.
At some point before his death, his beard used to be the only thing I could see from the door when I peeped in to check if he was still with us. I only entered his room twice every day, when I took his food and cleaned him up. The morning he died, I thought I was free because the bush attached to his jaw had finally stopped stirring.
What I didn’t know then, was that I would never be.