by Ifeanyi Paulinus Ekpunobi
I stepped into the air-conditioned cool of the banking hall very early in the morning with a disturbing sense that the day wouldn’t end well, that inexplicably unusual paranoia that makes you feel like the hair on your skin is standing erect. Even more, my mouth was filled with the rancid taste of adrenaline. I was not at ease with my feelings, so my gait started to sway, I felt it.
“You are welcome to Fidelity Bank, sir.” The uniformed guard by the automated sliding door flung a toothy smile at me. His uniform evinced a history of previous whiteness, now indecisive between brown and grey. Had he ever thought of washing it, or had he washed it until it faded?
“Thank you sir.” I said, I hoped I did sound courageous. I strode towards the customer care unit, keeping a straight face. I would have laughed myself to scorn if I had stepped outside my skin to watch my parade of ‘gentleness’. Not that I was not a gentle man, but this particular gentleness was a little rehearsed, wished, fantasy-inspired.
So finally I had entered a banking hall for the first time. I had lavished massive admiration on bank structures when I moved past them in a vehicle or on foot: the fleets of neatly parked cars parked in stately garages, spilling outside the gate and sometimes stalling the traffic. But today, my mother had told me to go to the bank and send some money to my elder brother who was studying at the University of Ibadan.
He had called recently and sounded worried, his voice tinged with anger, the sound of a receding grunt. Mother had dug out some newly minted notes from her purse and gave me to send to him: “Bia, Make sure you send this money to this account number, Ifeanyi,” her voice whined through my ear as usual. I had mixed feelings about this errand: my nervousness about the possibility of embarrassing myself, and a sense of pride for having earned such prestigious errand from my mother.
I stood in the queue, behind a dangerously overblown backside of a woman “Oh my goodness! Could this be a real butt or plastic surgery?” I felt my eyes bulging out from its sockets as I gawked at the monster bum. My lids parted widely as if to allow my eyes feed on the sight before me.
“Sir, you may go to this other customer care unit, the Attendant there is back on seat.” A prudish voice of a female attendant suggested to the man standing behind me.
He gazed around him and saw that he was the last, “and why must you talk to me in such way, what guts!” the man snapped. My heart leaped against my chest, the simple instruction wasn’t worth his reaction. I waited for a comeback from the lady who seemed to be in her mid-20s. She gave him a courteous and professional “I’m very sorry, Sah” and strode towards the bulk room. Why should she be so timid! My fists tightened and I felt like blasting the man’s pipe-holed nose that looked like a broken oja – flute. That was what the system had turned us into, where you believed that appearing professional was to assume a westernised etiquette, which I considered demeaning.
“Welcome Sir, Welcome to Fidelity. How may I be of help?” the fair lady seated behind the cabinet said to me as I approached. The lady before me had deprived me of her endowment when she left with a man I supposed to be her boyfriend – poor me. The Attendant was everything beautiful; I lost my stare on her face and gradually imagined her glossy kiss-inviting lips leaning close to mine. “Helloo, Sir,” her voice pulled back my straying imagination.
“Hi. Well done,” the words had dribbled unconsciously from my mouth. I allowed my admiration to sprinkle smiles over my face. “I …I want to open a savings account.” I wanted to take back my words but it was already spilled.
She skimmed through a pile of papers on the desk and gave me a form to fill. I looked at her outstretched arm and saw the radiating smoothness of her skin. Her lashes flickered, and her face, dosed in layers of makeup, unwound the stiffness that had grown in my heart. She was the kind of beauty many establishments placed before their customers to get them always coming back.
“Please, what do you mean here -” I pointed at a column that requested for my mother’s maiden name.
“Oh! That’s the surname of your mother before marriage.” Her words seemed to swell of shock and ridicule. Perhaps she was professional enough to keep her emotions at bay.
I stood there, lost in thoughts: Does it mean all these while I had never bothered to know my mother’s maiden name? Can I skip it? I wanted to ask but something restrained me. I hesitated and finally gave in to the fretting sensation that had now accompanied my nervous question: “Can I skip …ignore it?”
“No, it’s required,” she said emphatically. She stopped her scribbling on a rough sheet and bored an inquisitive face on me, it ruffled me. My ego now stayed on a slippery precipice, awaiting a nudge to send it crashing.
“Ehmm …sorry, I think I might have forgotten my Mum’s maiden name.”
“Seriously?” a foul frown dirtied her face, “but you know your surname, your faather’s name?” The stress she applied to “father” sliced through my chest.
“Yes, of course.”
“So your Mum’s never mattered to you simply because she is a woman, and her maiden name has become obsolete because she’s now bearing your father’s own?”
The way she readied her mouth told me that she was out to unleash her anger at me. She was being defensive about my mother like she knew my mother so well. But on a second thought, I discovered that her concerns were legitimate and worthy. My father neither easily allowed us to go to our maternal home, nor have any familial bond with my mother’s people. He always gave this flat excuse of having paid heavily for my Mum’s dowry and so didn’t owe them anything. I had always seen my father’s remark more as a simple joke rather than a tangible reason and I thought my siblings did so, until now. Standing before this pretty woman who sounded feminist, I wondered if she actually knew what feminism was. Maybe she didn’t need to know it; she only needed to act it.
“Well, I don’t think you will understand,” I said dismissively. My brother also didn’t know it, and I didn’t want to risk calling my mother over the phone, it would be embarrassing. I needed to …then I remembered, “Excuse me, let me first make a transaction.”
“Okay, you may queue yonder.” She pointed with the tip of her pen.
I backed disgracefully and joined the queue from behind. “Can you imagine someone doesn’t know his mother’s maiden name?” I heard the attendant whisper to her colleague.
Faces began to glare around me, they must have heard her. One lady giggled and tapped her feeble fingers on the shoulder of her friend who also mumbled something into her ear that provoked laughter between them. My countenance flung to the neatly tiled floor that had since gathered specks of sands from customers’ footwear, my eyes groped around hoping not to meet any eyes. How could I not know the person I claimed to love the most – Nne m oma.
When it was finally my turn, I shamefully raised my face, scanning the hall for any remnant of impending ridicule; none. I quickly filled the necessary information in the deposit slip I had drawn from the rack on the marble stand; I paid in the money and dashed out immediately. Outside, I puffed a heave of relief, the air was musty. The weather was dimming, I entered a taxi and there I imagined my sister’s child not knowing her mother’s maiden name. I tried to ward off the thought by peeping out through the window. I looked at the sky trying to drown my worry in the lazy pacing cloud that had started to mass. Suddenly, the sky cracked and the rains came down. I would tell mother that I sent the money successfully, but I wouldn’t tell her that I did not know her maiden name.
Ifeanyi Paulinus Ekpunobi is an emerging writer. A graduate of philosophy from the University of Ibadan. He is a young man who loves digging into life to see what connects and makes us human. When he is bored he turns to watching the best of Mess and C. Ronaldo. He is currently in Ibadan to further his studies in the Humanities. He blogs short stories at www.chroniclesofpaulinus.blogspot.com