Content advisory – attempted suicide, self-harm, emotional abuse, and homophobia.
Uniform and her sisters sat in a circle. They had altered their customary cinema-style Space to a much smaller room. With its drab light-green walls, all they needed to do was trade their chairs for a bed, a TV, two foldable chairs and a drawer for it to look exactly like the hospital room their Owner currently lay in.
Uniform didn’t like this new room, but the fifth sister, Princess, had picked it. Princess thought it was fitting because their Owner’s condition had not changed; they were tired of watching through the big screen the bleakness of things on the Human Side and were dealing with it in the ways they knew how.
For the day’s journey into their Owner’s memories, Uniform had chosen the event that really taught Owner, and inevitably Uniform and her sisters, Shame.
She ignored Mufti’s dissenting murmur as Comfort narrowed her eyes at Uniform, conveying the displeasure on her face. Princess hadn’t looked up since she remodelled the Space, content with pulling out the sequins on her gown like her hand was made of lead, the sequins reappearing as soon as they left the material. Lingerie had led with the words “Are you sure?” to express her doubt at Uniform’s choice. She reclined into her chair when Uniform replied with a nod. Occasion said nothing. The direness of things on the Human Side affected her most out of all the sisters: she had been wearing that hospital gown for two weeks and existed on the Clothes Side with the ambiance of a dreary day.
Uniform tried not to think about it, but she knew that if their Owner died, Uniform’s death and that of four of her sisters would be quick. The first few minutes after Owner’s heart stopped beating, they would disappear in the order they had come because the model of the motifs they embodied was moving on to some place where, perhaps, she couldn’t bring them along or didn’t need them anymore.
But it would be different for Occasion.
Because she was the first Cloth, she would be the last to go. A remnant of the girl on the Human Side, Occasion would remain to watch everything on this side crumble after Owner’s death. And when the last rite for their Owner was completed, a send-off in whatever way the other humans chose to do it, only then would Occasion die, wearing the same clothes the girl would be sent off with.
It was something they all knew, but Clothes couldn’t help but get attached. To be well-worn was one of a Cloth’s wishes, however, an Owner’s life abruptly cut short was something that couldn’t be avoided. The sisters had experienced this for themselves two weeks ago on the Occasion of their Owner’s near-death.
Uniform sighed. After Owner’s resuscitation in the hospital, the Clothes that had vanished (Lingerie first, then Princess, then Mufti) came back the same way they were before they scattered into tiny fragments of light, Mufti with the same sad smile on her face. The last thing they remembered was the image on the screen, the pills. Time hadn’t stopped. Nothing had changed. For Clothes, an Owner’s death was undoing camouflaged as the opportunity to begin anew.
Uniform felt a hand cover her own, Lingerie bringing her back to the present.
“Hey,” she said. “I don’t know what you’re thinking about, but the emotions you’re putting out are making the rest of us uneasy.”
“Sorry,” Uniform replied. “It’s just…” She grasped for something. “I was thinking of the empty chair.”
Lingerie’s gaze leapt to the chair on her right, between Princess and Comfort. There was wariness in her expression. “I really thought it’d disappear after Adesuwa left.” She grimaced. “It can’t have manifested just because she said she was going to bring Owner clothes from home, could it?”
Uniform slumped her shoulders. “I don’t know. Maybe. The new chair feels like hope, but—”
“With Owner’s life hanging by a thread, hope isn’t something we can afford,” Lingerie completed.
Uniform nodded. She lowered her voice so only Lingerie could catch her next words. “I’m too afraid to hope.”
“Are you talking about the new chair?” Mufti, who was sitting on Uniform’s right, asked. “Its appearance has to mean Owner’s getting a new Cloth, isn’t she? We’ll get another sister?”
“Owner’s getting a new Cloth?” Princess, picking up on the conversation, peered at Uniform from beside Lingerie. She stopped pulling out the sequins in her gown, eyes filled with hope. “It’s because of Adesuwa and the new chair, right? Owner’s not going to die if she’s getting a new Cloth?”
“Princess,” Uniform began. Now that the others had joined in on the conversation, the chair and what it bespoke had become tangible things. Uniform wasn’t sure she and her sisters could handle the disappointment or the indulgence of hope. They had spent the past few days avoiding and talking around the subject.
“We don’t know that,” Mufti finished. “Forget it. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“It will even be better if you have no hope,” Comfort added, scratching her hair bonnet.
“Comfort!” Mufti hissed.
“You can’t tell her that.”
Comfort’s eyes moved swiftly up and down her sister’s frame. “Why not? I know it’s because you can’t remember anything from when you disappeared—that’s why you’re talking like this. Look at Occasion. Look at her o! Does she seem like someone whose Owner is doing well on the Human Side? Does Owner seem like someone who is getting better? Please, nobody should lecture me here. Since I am the only realistic one out of you lot, I’m fine with that.”
“But they took her off life support—she’s breathing on her own. Being realistic doesn’t mean we can’t have any hope, right?” Princess asked, her eyes shining with oncoming tears. “Right?”
Comfort frowned. “Then why hasn’t she woken up yet, biko? It’s been seventeen days. The body is recovering. What’s she waiting for?” Her frown deepened. “See, I don’t understand why you’re crying. You started out as a Hand-Me-Down, abi? If this Owner dies, you can move on to a new Owner. The Cloth you originated from still has a few years left in it. Maybe Owner’s brother will give the gown to someone who has need of it.”
Mufti gasped. “Comfort! That’s a mean thing to say. You know we disappear when our Owners die. She won’t be Herself or have any of her existing memories if a new Owner gets the Antecedent Her after Owner’s death. She might not even be a Core Cloth.” Mufti said the last part in a whisper.
“Plus,” Lingerie began wearily, “we can’t deny that Death imprints on a Cloth in some way. The Humans remember, but Death is a memory we ourselves have no access to, marking us out for better…and for worse.”
Comfort’s mouth twisted to the side. “And how is that my business! I don’t want to disappear, but being discarded after her death is worse!” Her voice quivered, rending the illusion of her stoic expression. She wiped her face with the sleeve of her bathrobe, making a show of it, trying to hide her reddening eyes.
Uniform’s heart, a caricature of her Owner’s, but hers all the same, constricted at the sight. She felt like she had been dunked in starch.
“Uniform.” Occasion’s voice was low and hoarse and sounded like the voices of any of her sisters (and Owner) if they were having a bad day, but its rawness still made Uniform jump. She and her sisters looked and sounded the same: dark oval face, wide-set, round eyes, high brows and a full body on a five-foot-three frame—exactly like their Owner. But that was where the similarities ended. Although they represented different facets of their Owner’s memories and identity, they didn’t always complement each other or get along.
Uniform stared at her sister’s shoulders. Occasion sat between Mufti and Comfort which put her in front of Uniform. It was hard to meet Occasion’s eyes when she looked like someone had sewn the light in her shut. “Yes, Occasion?”
“Weren’t you about to open a memory? I’ll take any memory in place of this fighting.”
Uniform smiled sadly. “Yeah, okay,” she paused. “Now, I know some of you think it’s inappropriate given the circumstances, but I chose this memory because I think it was the first time Owner really felt ashamed of us—of me. She can stand out if she wants to, but I pride myself in helping her blend in. I am the closest Owner can get to being invisible. I offer her the protection of conformity. But this memory made me feel powerless. I couldn’t protect her. Maybe this is where it all began. Because we couldn’t protect Owner from what the Human Side threw at her, that’s how it came to this.”
“Uniform…” Lingerie’s voice had acquired some of the rawness that was in Occasion’s. “You know there’s nothing we can do when our Owner’s dilemma isn’t something we can conceal.”
Uniform’s throat tightened. “I know, but I just wish—” She broke off and Lingerie nodded in understanding.
Uniform closed her eyes against the sorrow on Lingerie’s face. She emptied her consciousness and brought her psychic walls down to let the rest of her sisters in.
“I will now roll the memory.”
For Owner who was Uniform and Uniform who was Owner, this memory began with stomach-ache and the noise that made it difficult to concentrate on the note they were copying. Although the racket from their classmates had subsided after a prefect came to warn them about it, right before he tasked the class monitor to write a list of noisemakers, the people sitting behind Owner and Uniform kept tittering at intervals, the sound grating on their nerves.
Owner and Uniform got the urge to pee and rose from their seat. The tittering cut off and then got louder. They turned. Two boys were sharing a seat meant for one student. Their expressions said they were having trouble keeping their laughter in check.
The people Owner and Uniform had their back to had begun to laugh as well. Someone said, “Oh my god, she’s stained.” And Owner and Uniform felt everything in their body still.
In their previous school, a girl called Osaro in their class had gotten her period. Someone said some of it dropped on the floor and Osaro had used paper to wipe it off before anyone else could see. But she hadn’t accounted for the splotch on her pinafore and her friends had to act as shields as she quickly made her way out of her seat to the toilet.
Owner and Uniform’s gaze dropped to their feet, mortification draping over them.
To Uniform, Shame felt like a hand pulling at a loose thread in her stitching until she unravelled, useless, with Owner standing in that classroom unclad as Shame picked at her the way it did Uniform, never stopping even when it hit bone.
Hands gripped their waist, working quickly and soon, Owner and Uniform had a sweater tied loosely around their hips. Their head snapped up to find the assistant class monitor smiling at them. She reached for their wrist.
“Come with me.”
Owner and Uniform willed their legs to follow. They walked to the corridor, out into the open compound where they held their morning assembly.
“Why were you just standing there?” the assistant class monitor asked, tugging lightly at their hand. “You haven’t seen your period before?”
They shook their head. The assistant class monitor sighed. “Chinecherem, abi?”
Owner and Uniform nodded. “Yes, but people just call me Cheche.”
The assistant class monitor smiled again. “Cheche it is, then. I’m—”
“Lara—Omolara,” they completed. Omolara pursed her lips at them.
“It’s a small class,” they rushed to explain. “And you’re the assistant class monitor. You introduced yourself the day the teacher brought me to the class—I don’t forget names.” What Owner didn’t mention was how the smile in Omolara’s eyes had washed over her skin, little pricks of fire in its wake, on the day they first met. Occasion had been the one to experience this memory and she had excitedly shared it with the sisters.
“Where’s your hostel?” Omolara asked. “Do you have pad?”
“I—I don’t know.”
“Do you want to go to the sick bay?”
Owner and Uniform shook their head. “No.”
“Come to my room then, I will give you pad.”
They had walked past the school field and were taking the winding path that led to the school farm, away from the administrative block to the buildings designated the girl’s hostels. When they got to the front of Lara’s hostel, she said, “I don’t have a pass, but I can tell the hostel mistress that it’s the first time you’re seeing your period and I’m just trying to help.”
Owner and Uniform shook their head again. “What? You don’t want her to know?” They nodded. “You don’t have to be ashamed of it, abi you know? She’ll understand. She’s very nice. Come.”
Lara’s hand had slipped from their wrist into their hand. She hadn’t made any effort to let go all through their walk to the hostel and she pulled them along now, into the corridor to the first door by the left. With her free hand, she knocked on the door.
“Who is it?” a muffled voice said.
Lara swept her gaze over Owner and Uniform. “It’s me, ma, Omolara. I’m seeing my period. I came back to take pad.”
There was shuffling behind the door and then it swung open to reveal a tall woman. She glanced from Lara to Owner and Uniform and then back again. “Who is this one?” She motioned to them.
“She’s my friend, Cheche. She’s here for emotional support.”
The woman snorted. “Emotional support ke? You this girl, there’s nothing I will not hear.” She reached behind the doorframe and brought out a key. “Oya take. Five minutes.”
Lara nodded at the woman and drew Owner and Uniform to the door opposite the hostel mistress’s. She opened it and they shuffled in. Lara let them go to approach her locker while Owner and Uniform waited, their hand warm from the ghost of Lara’s touch. They stood awkwardly, playing with the sleeves of the sweater Lara had tied around their waist as they took in her room.
It didn’t look different from Owner and Uniform’s. The hostels for students in JS1 to JS3 usually contained rows of four bunk beds, two on one side, two on the other. Beside the beds was a desk and a chair for both students on a bunk to share. However, the junior usually deferred to the senior in terms of who got to use them. There were two doors—the entrance and the toilet/bathrooms—facing each other and centred in the walls of the room, further dividing it into two factions. The walls were dark brown and, on each side, opposite the rows of beds were two lockers demarcated into a top and a bottom. Most seniors preferred the top locker and Lara’s was the last locker on the left side of the room.
When she finally stopped rummaging the locker, she turned towards Owner and Uniform, holding a flat rectangular thing encased in a pink wrapper. Owner and Uniform knew it was a pad. They just weren’t sure what to do with it or how it helped with periods.
“You know how to put it on, abi?”
They shook their head. Lara sighed. “Are you an only child?” she asked.
They shook their head again. “I have a brother. He doesn’t know anything—about periods.”
“What about your mother?”
“She left. My parents are divorced.” Owner shrugged. She wasn’t close with the parent she lived with, much less the woman who left when she was two. Uniform had come into being two years after the divorce, four years after Occasion, and three years after Comfort.
There was silence as Lara studied Owner. It was perfunctory. But to Owner, and Uniform who felt everything her Owner was feeling, there was that prickle again. Like the sun raking up their skin. It was divine for the shortest moments, until Shame gathered like a cloud and turned the heat into the unpleasantness of insects scurrying on their skin.
Occasion hadn’t spoken of Shame when she shared the experience of Owner meeting Lara. She mentioned confusion, curiosity, and some fear, all of which Owner had chalked up to nerves. Just as she kept explaining away why her eyes sought Lara in a classroom of other students or why they wouldn’t stop following the girl around.
Uniform decided then she did not like Shame. This thing that turned Owner’s distinctiveness against her. The Clothes knew Owner had a suspicion of what her reaction to Lara meant, but she chose to repress that part of herself, content with watching and justifying from a distance. It was easier that way—or at least it had been until that day.
Perhaps it was the sermon the headmistress had given that morning. The Bible passages she had read and the boys she had flogged afterwards, both of them rumoured to have been caught kissing. It was all the chance Shame needed.
It picked and picked at Owner, leaving Uniform at a loss. For Clothes did not come with the knowledge of how to protect their Owners from the judgement of their own minds.
Uniform ended the memory. She opened her eyes. “Would any—”
“Continue the memory, please,” Princess said.
“It gets better. Maybe this was where we learned Shame but it was also where we learned how hot even a tiniest spark could burn if you held it close enough to the skin.”
Mufti was nodding, wistfulness on her face. “I was there. I’m part of this story.”
Lingerie’s lips quirked. “Aren’t we all?”
“But it gets worse again na, doesn’t it?” Comfort asked.
“It always gets worse,” Occasion added. The hoarseness in her voice hadn’t gone away.
Princess groaned. She sat up straighter in her seat. This was the first time Uniform had seen her this energetic since Owner’s hospitalisation. “You all are missing the point. Yes, it gets worse. Yes, Owner has some shitty memories. But do we write off the good ones just because some or most of them happen to be bad? Shouldn’t we savour them? Don’t we deserve that too? Maybe if we remind Owner of the homes she built in us, she’ll wake up. Maybe she won’t—” Her eyes welled up with tears.
“Princess might have a point,” Mufti said thoughtfully. “I’d like you to continue the memory as well, Uniform.”
Uniform nodded. When she closed her eyes again, her sisters were there with her, sharing memories and the emotions that came with them, as they played their parts in the vignettes that were their Owner’s life.
Uniform sped up the memory, past the period debacle, past Lara’s attempt to assimilate Owner into her clique and Owner struggling to fit in with them, past points in Owner’s life where her crush on Lara seemed to grow with Shame, the looming shadow that grew alongside it.
It was a spark that turned into a flare when Owner found out Lara played an instrument, and singed painfully when she tried to backtrack, to return the flare to the flame it once was. A flare that grew into a torch every time she heard Lara’s laughter and Owner was the one who caused it. The spark grew until it didn’t need to be held close to skin for it to burn.
Sometimes, it took a look, a meaningless brush of fingers against skin. Other times it was the thoughts, igniting and igniting, with Lara the kindling. It was radiance, but with light also came darkness, and Shame had evolved by clinging onto Owner, a host in the light, and becoming her shadow.
Owner and Lara were sitting on a concrete bench under the mango tree in the school field, shirking their duties of grass-cutting. Lara was reading a love letter someone had slipped into her desk.
“Your pulchritudinous beauty fills me with awe—” she broke off to snigger. “Pulchritudinous. This one don go open dictionary. What does this person take me for? These admirers, sef.” She fished out another letter from pocket of her pinafore, squinted at it. “This one is from a girl, sha.”
Owner’s heart jolted at that. She cleared her throat. “I hear people do it here. Homosexuality. It’s all the headmistress preaches about in Friday assembly.”
Lara shrugged. “It’s probably because of the rumours and those boys they caught last month,” she paused. “Anyways, it’s not like I mind. I just hope her letter is better than this pulchritudinous person.” She read a few lines of it and frowned. “Na wa o. Our madam doesn’t know how to spell. How am I supposed to take her seriously?”
Owner kicked a patch of levelled grass with her feet. “So you’re saying that if someone gives you a well-written letter and doesn’t use any big words, you’ll accept them?”
Lara appeared to think about it. “I’m not saying they shouldn’t use any big words; I’m just saying that it must come from the heart. It’s a plus if it’s well-written.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s from a girl or a boy?”
Lara shrugged again. “Heart is what matters.”
Heart is what matters. In her room, while her roommates bustled about her, Owner had cradled those words as she used her pen as a funnel through which she poured everything she felt onto paper. In that moment, faced with her fervour, Shame had little power.
Comfort was the Cloth to experience this memory and she opened her mind to let the emotions that accompanied it spill over so Uniform and the rest of her sisters could feel it too: Owner’s heart—their heart—expanding in a ribcage too small to hold the intensity of their feelings.
“I got another letter,” Lara whispered to Owner the next day in prep as she tried to avoid getting caught by the prefect.
Owner froze. Her head rose from her book. “Who is it from?”
“I don’t know. It’s anonymous.”
“Have you read it?”
“What do you think?”
Lara didn’t reply for a few seconds and Owner had to turn to check that she was still there. The sisters held their breaths here. In their shared mind, Uniform could tell who licked their lips (Princess) and whose hands clenched in their lap (Mufti) out of the sheer promise of this memory.
“I know it’s you,” Lara said.
Owner forgot how to breathe. “What?”
“We’ve been friends for a month. I can tell your handwriting anywhere.”
Owner forced her attention back to her book. She ignored Lara’s harsh whispers of her name—not once did she turn. She tried to escape as soon as prep was over, but Lara, it seemed, had anticipated that. She chased after Owner, past the administrative block and into the school farm, tackling her when she got close enough. They tumbled in the dirt, Owner trying to escape with Lara straddling her and yelling at her to keep still.
When Owner had no more fight left in her, she simply sobbed. “I’m sorry.”
Owner refused to meet Lara’s eyes but she heard the confusion in Lara’s voice when she asked, “What are you apologising for? Did you not mean all the things you said in your letter?”
Owner wiped at her eyes. “Of course, I meant it. But that’s why I’m sorry.” She swallowed a sob. “I probably have a spirit in me. I’m not…I’m not supposed to have these feelings. I feel like there’s something wrong with me. What will the headmistress say? Do you even like me back?”
Lara’s grip on Owner’s shoulders loosened. “I don’t know.” Owner struggled to get back up, but Lara pushed her back down. “Will you wait for me to finish? I don’t know if you have a spirit in you or if there’s something wrong with you. The headmistress isn’t going to say anything because I’m not going to tell her. I also don’t know if I like you the way you like me, but when I read your letter, I felt your heart and it filled me with this good feeling that I never want to stop. I wanted to have more of that. I know it’s not exactly what you want, but we can make it work, right?”
Princess broke out of the connection. Her abrupt exit left a gap in the sisters’ shared link, and the memory warped as the rest of the sisters followed. Uniform shut the memory. She opened her eyes to find Princess running her hands over her gown.
“I thought this was a good idea, but after revisiting…I wish she hadn’t said yes to Lara,” she said. “Maybe if she hadn’t accepted a love that was undeserving of her, things wouldn’t have turned out this way.”
“You don’t know that, Princess,” Mufti said. “My domain cloth was what she had been wearing when this happened, and at the time, it didn’t feel undeserving to Owner. It felt…good, beautiful. Like hope. It was a better reaction than what she had been expecting.”
“And you don’t think there’s something wrong with that?” Lingerie’s voice was dry. “She let herself date a girl she knew didn’t like her like that because it was a better reaction than what she had been expecting.”
“Lingerie…” Uniform began.
Comfort interrupted, “Oh, let the Cloth have her cynicism. After all, was it not through her we learned what Rejection really felt like?”
“I thought we were trying to parse through the good parts?” Uniform said.
“Well, my verdict is the good parts are terrible,” Comfort replied. “Because every time they happen, the next thing that comes is pain. And nobody should tell me that pain makes us appreciate the good. Pain is abhorrent.”
“I’d like the memory to continue,” Occasion spoke up. Her voice hadn’t lost its hoarseness, but the dullness in her eyes had ebbed to let a flicker through. “It may not have worked out, but remember the memory with Owner’s brother? The day she got Princess’s Antecedent?”
Uniform smiled. “That’s a good memory.”
The others had similar expressions on their faces. Uniform could feel her sisters around her as they restored the connection.
“You can take this one, Princess,” Uniform said. “It concerns your birth, after all.”
Princess took them past the diffidence of a girl infatuated with another, the other’s affection towards her unclear. Owner had confessed to Lara near the end of a school session. There wasn’t enough time to spend together until school vacated for the year.
Lara had given Owner the number to one of her sisters’ phone so they could talk during the holiday. She didn’t have one of her own. Neither did Owner, but she had decided she was going to find a way to make it work, even if it meant grovelling to her brother so she could use his. One week passed and Owner was still doing her brother’s chores while he kept reneging his end of the bargain—asking her father was a definite no. He would ask too many questions and would want to be present while she used his phone. A breakthrough came a few days later. An aunt who lived on the Island wanted to see her.
Owner had stood awkwardly as the aunt pinched her cheeks and turned her around, appraising her.
“Ah!” she said. “See how big you’ve grown. Are you sure the clothes I want to give you will size you? Gozie, what have you been feeding this girl?”
Owner’s father answered with a strained smile from his spot by the door. She could see he was impatient to leave. He slipped some money into Owner’s hand and said, “You know your way back, okwa ya? I’ll see you at home.”
Owner’s aunt locked the door after him. “That your father has no warmth in him. Even when we were children. Do you know he proposed to your mother via post? Gozie, my brother, sent his girlfriend a letter containing a ring and the question ‘Marry Me?’ because she was serving in Ibadan and he lived in Enugu and he simply didn’t have time to travel to see her or plan a proposal. And he expected that kind of marriage to last?” She kissed her teeth and led Owner into a small corridor to the first door by her left. She opened it, and Owner followed after her.
Sinking into the king-sized bed that took up most of the room, Owner’s aunt instructed her to bring out the suitcase under the bed as a thrill overtook the sisters. Clothes shopping of any kind (even ones that had already happened) was one of their favourite activities. “You can try out any of the clothes there,” Owner’s aunt had said. “Any one that doesn’t fit, keep it aside. I’ll give them to your cousins instead.”
Owner nodded and opened the suitcase.
Soon there were two piles of clothes on the floor: clothes that fit her and clothes that didn’t. The former pile was smaller and most of the clothes were in Comfort, Mufti, and Occasion’s domain. Owner put her hand into the case again and that was when she pulled out Princess’s Antecedent. The dress had looked like something Owner would wear to an event, and the sisters had all thought it would become part of Occasion’s domain.
Owner regarded the dress with mild curiosity. It was a purple thing with rows of frills beginning at the hips and flowing to the wearer’s feet. There were no sleeves, just thin straps that bared the shoulders and arms, something Owner didn’t like.
But things changed when she put on the dress.
A breathless joy took over the girl when she saw how well it fit, how perfect for her it seemed, and although the joy dimmed when Owner’s eyes lowered to her stomach, another part of herself she thought the gown didn’t fully conceal, it still remained.
On the Clothes Side, right beside Mufti, a new chair had sparkled into existence. The sisters regarded it with awe. Comfort had exclaimed, “Yes! After nine years of seeing your ugly faces, we get a new sister.”
But then Owner’s aunt chose that moment to quip, “Cheche, this gown fits you well-well o,” she paused. “But you need to watch your weight, you’ve gotten fatter since the last time I saw you. You might not find someone to marry you if you grow too fat.”
That was all it took to shatter the magic. The empty chair turned translucent as Owner reeled from her aunt’s words, a lump forming in her throat. She couldn’t get out of the dress fast enough. Memories that had to do with Owner in her underwear or nude were recorded by Comfort. She showed them how much the words had hacked at Owner. This was something different from Shame, something that cut in one fell swoop. The emotion shuddered through the sisters. Uniform clenched her fist. She felt Lingerie wince.
“I think I’ve tried everything in the bag, auntie.” Owner smiled politely.
Her aunt sat up. “You can put the ones that aren’t your size back in the box. There’s nylon bag in the kitchen for the ones you’ll take home. Do you want to eat something before you leave? I have Fanta in the fridge.”
Owner shook her head. “No, thank you.” Her attention honed in on the phone on the bedside table. “Actually, can I please borrow your phone? I promised my friend I’d call her during the holidays.”
“Yes, it’s on the table there. Don’t take too long o. You know how much they charge for these things.” Owner beamed, mood soaring at the prospect of talking to Lara.
Mufti sighed. Uniform understood the sentiment. Owner’s eagerness had been for nothing because the number was unavailable and it never changed in the other two times Owner had tried it using her brother’s phone. A fitting foreshadowing for what soon followed, Lingerie thought and Uniform felt Comfort agree.
Princess didn’t linger on the failure. Her excitement was a tang that rippled through the psychic link as she siphoned off Occasion’s stored memories, taking them to later that day. Owner standing in front of a mirror, wearing the gown that would become Princess’s Antecedent.
She had styled her hair and dabbed powder on her face, lined her eyes with eye-pencil and rubbed pink eyeshadow on her lips which she then lathered with Vaseline. This memory was one of the few times Owner had thought herself beautiful. She wore her heels first, then the cheap jewellery, before turning on the radio, switching stations until she found one playing a song she liked. Then, she danced.
Another one of a Cloth’s wishes was to save moments in their stitching that brought their Owner joy, and this memory was one of Uniform’s (and her sisters’) favourites.
The chair that had grown faint on the Clothes Side solidified again.
Owner danced until it didn’t matter that her JS3 graduation in her new school hadn’t gone like she imagined. Her father had refused to buy her a new dress or shoes, things with which she thought she would transform herself, like the teen girls she read about in American books. By the time money from her mother arrived, the graduation day had come and gone.
Lara had been too busy with her friends to sneak off with her that day. They hadn’t shared a kiss; a day like that was perfect for a first kiss. They had been taking things slow. Owner patient, not wanting to bother the other girl or ask for too much. Owner had hoped that the graduation day would change, if not everything, but at least something.
In the solace of her room, wearing a dress that made her feel like magic, Owner became the heroine of her own story again. She was at a party, prom, a ball, dancing with the person she liked.
In that moment, Owner had felt like a princess.
“Madam, what are you doing?” Her brother’s voice came from the door, interrupting her moment.
Owner mis-stepped, stumbled. Her brother guffawed.
“You’re dressed up, but you’re not going anywhere. It’s late and you’re alone, dancing with yourself, but if them call normal people, say them wan share rice, you sef go follow come out?”
Owner crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m just having fun by myself, what’s wrong with that?”
“This is why you have no friends.” Owner’s brother entered the room and plopped on her bed. He ignored his sister’s glare. “What were you even dancing sef?”
Owner sniffed and sat down beside him. “It’s called a waltz.”
He shot her an amused look. “Is that what they teach you at that ajebo boarding school?”
“No,” Owner said reluctantly. “It’s just something I picked up.”
“Something you picked up?” Owner’s brother repeated. He glanced at her and burst out laughing again, falling into the bed, holding his sides.
Owner lay down beside him and tried to pretend like he didn’t exist. When he finished laughing, she waited a beat before asking. “Did Daddie tell you when he’s coming back?”
“Next tomorrow, maybe. He said the meeting got pushed back because one of the guests couldn’t make it in time.”
They lay there in silence for a while until Owner asked, “Azubuike, have you…have you ever liked someone more than they like you?”
Her brother turned towards her. He grinned. “This one that you’re asking, do you have someone you like?”
Her silence confirmed it. Owner could see he was fighting his mirth. “Who is it? Which boy has you thinking so hard like this?”
Owner took in her brother’s face. They were close; he was a stand-in parent to make up for the one who was always busy and the other with the new family. A brother who piggy-backed her to the hospital when she got hit by an okada and who rumour had it had cried when she was born. It had always been her and him for as long as she could remember. They couldn’t have spent that much time together, most of it great memories, without him loving her no matter what, could they?
She was only fairly sure, but her future didn’t involve pining over any boys. Her brother had to be in her corner; she had no one else.
Her heart a drum, Owner took the plunge.
“I…I like this girl more than she likes me.” Her gaze leapt to her brother, cautious, and he blinked at her. His expression said he had hit a snag in his processing.
Owner nodded. She watched him carefully as he sat up. “Have you told her? That you like her?”
Owner’s tightening chest eased, but the twine didn’t dissolve. “I didn’t tell her—well, sort of. She found out by herself.”
Another beat of silence passed. Her brother studied her, his expression thoughtful. “Is it because you go to a boarding school? Is that it? But it’s a mixed school na, isn’t it? There are boys there.”
Owner answered with patience, her heart still thudding. “It’s not because I go to a boarding school. I only started boarding school this year because you gained admission and won’t be here to look after me anymore, you know that. But this girl…she’s the first one. My first crush ever.”
“So that means you can still like boys?”
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
“But what’s wrong with boys?”
Owner shrugged. “I don’t know. Because they’re boys? If you like boys so much, why don’t you date them?”
Her brother’s lip’s twitched, but his face kept its sombreness. “Why did you choose to tell me this?”
“If I had a second brother, I would have told him instead of you.”
The sombre mask cracked. Her brother chuckled. He lay back down on the bed. “This girl? You like her well-well?”
“More than she likes me.” Owner paused, when she spoke again, her voice was small. “You…you don’t think there’s something wrong with me?”
Her brother waited a beat too long to reply. And in his silence, Shame raged. It filled Owner up with a bitterness that made her nauseated. Just as she began to turn, trying to see if she could glean what her brother was thinking from his expression, she felt his hand slip into hers.
“No,” he said, squeezing. His voice calm and sure. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”
Owner’s shame shrank away from the glow of this certainty. The bile receded.
Owner laughed, part-relief, part-joy. The music from the radio had faded to the background, but with their conversation coming to a lull, she could hear it again. She stood and twirled, resuming her dance.
Her brother raised his head to watch her. “You dance like you’re trying to summon something,” he said. “Is that dress part of the clothes you got from Auntie Evelyn?”
“You look fine in it, sha. Like a flower.”
Owner’s heart swelled and she ran a hand fondly over the gown.
On the Clothes Side, the empty chair shimmered as a glowing figure appeared in it.
The birth of a Cloth wasn’t usually anything special. Some of them, like Comfort and Mufti, were borne from habits, how frequently their Owners took up these motifs, the kind of person their Owners were. Clothes like Uniform were borne out of necessity. Then there were some that sprung from a strong emotional attachment, an experience and memory transformed.
Uniform and her sisters (four of them, at that time) had watched the glowing recede to reveal a girl identical to their Owner, identical to them. She was wearing the purple gown, her eyes bright with joy and hope and optimism.
Smiling shyly, she had said, “Hello, I’m Princess.”
“Do you all see it now?” Princess waited until her sisters opened their eyes before speaking.
“What are we supposed to be seeing?” asked Comfort.
“The empty chair really could mean Owner’s getting a new Cloth,” Princess replied.
“Princess…” Lingerie began.
“We have to trust Adesuwa. We can’t stop hoping.”
“What is there to hope for?” Comfort shouted. “What is there to hope for when Owner hasn’t even woken up yet? When it feels like she doesn’t want to wake up? You remember how bad things were in the last few months? Years, even? Remember the choice she made?” This last part was said in a tone slighter than the rest, like the knowledge would not come rushing back if she only quietly referred to it.
“For Owner to get a new Cloth, she needs to use her body, treat it right. She needs to feel something other than—” She splayed her hands. “—Numbness—Apathy. Anger! How do you create magic from that? If this new chair is to represent hope, a new sister, with the situation we’re in right now, it needs to come from a good memory. Something special. The sort that birthed you and not—her!” She pointed at Lingerie. “But how does a body whose Owner can’t stand the thought of their own existence create magic?”
“Perhaps we’ve been saving in our stitching sadness, self-loathing, and more sadness,” Mufti said in a quiet voice.
“That can’t be true,” Princess protested. “We have good moments, too. Uniform, tell them. Uniform…” Princess had begun to cry again. She said the next words like they crushed something in her. “When do you think she started to hate us? Herself?”
“Probably when she started to listen too much to a world that looked at her body and that was all they saw,” Lingerie answered, features grim.
“Until they convinced her we reminded her of all the ways she seemed inadequate,” Occasion finished, the flicker in her eye had winked out. Her voice sounded like it would soon follow.
“So that’s it then?” Princess asked. “We’re giving up? The story isn’t over yet. What about Adesuwa? Or Lingerie’s birth? You said it yourself, Comfort, hers was different from mine. Maybe that’s where we need to look? We can try finding out how things went wrong, just like Uniform said. What about the memories coded to Adesuwa? She made Owner happy, didn’t she? We can’t give up now. Please. We have to keep reminding ourselves—and Owner—of all the things that matter. You all already seem to think we’re going to disappear soon, so we might as well just give this a try, please?”
Uniform struggled to shake off her lethargy, her sisters’ misery. She latched onto Princess’s flickering hope. “I agree with Princess. I started this because I’d thought the memories might provide us with answers and if not answers, reprieve, at least.”
“Reprieve,” Lingerie repeated dryly.
“Okay,” Occasion replied, but her dreariness kept its intensity.
Comfort splayed her hands again, and Princess wiped the tears from her face.
“Where do we start?” Mufti asked.
“The first rejection,” Uniform said.
“The one that didn’t count,” Princess said.
“Because a bigger one was coming,” Lingerie added.
Owner and Lara were standing under the udala tree close to a bungalow that used to house the staffroom and library but was being repurposed into more staff quarters. She had chased Lara all the way here on her way to prep. Science students started their prep earlier than Art students. Owner had a class going on at the time.
It took an entreating glance from Owner for Lara to ask her friends to go on without her. The session was in its third week and this was the first time she had managed to get Lara alone. The girl walked off in the other direction whenever she saw Owner approaching. Owner had concluded Lara didn’t see her the first time it happened. Until it happened again. And again.
She was already seeing less of Lara with the new class arrangement: Owner had chosen Art and Lara, Science. Their classes were in different blocks. Lara lived in a new hostel because they were reshuffled every year and finding out which one it was involved asking one of Lara’s friends or Lara herself.
Owner fiddled with the rubber band on her wrist. She had been fine thinking up reasons why Lara was avoiding her: She was busy, she was angry—Owner had promised to call, but hadn’t—she was dealing with something and didn’t want to see Owner for the time being. Then she had heard the rumour Lara was dating the Head Boy, a senior in SS3 science class.
Owner pulled at the rubber band. “How was your holiday?” she asked.
Lara, attention fixed somewhere beyond Owner, replied, “It was okay.”
Owner let the rubber band go. It hit her skin with a barely noticeable thwack. “I’m sorry I didn’t call during the holiday. I tried the number you gave me; it was unreachable.”
Lara made a noncommittal sound. “Yeah, they stole my sister’s phone.” Then as an afterthought, “Sorry.”
Owner pulled the rubber band a little farther. When she let go, the sting was slight. “Is it true?” She rubbed at her wrist. “Is it true that you’re dating David?”
“Yeah.” A fond smile cleared out the blankness of Lara’s expression. “We became close during the holiday.”
“But what about—” Owner let the bite of the rubber band against her wrist cut off the rest of the sentence.
“I’ve always liked him,” Lara continued. Her eyes scanned Owner. “You should understand.”
Owner and the rubber band had established a rhythm, an ode to the heaviness in her heart. One which Uniform had recoiled from. This wasn’t a memory she had wanted to imbibe, but Clothes have little choice in the matter.
“Did you tell your friends?” she said, referring to their snickering when she asked to speak to Lara alone. “Did you tell them that I—” She broke off as the voices of students on their way to the new library drifted to them. They were fairly hidden by the tree and the building’s fence, but Owner wasn’t taking any chances. “—about me?” she completed.
“They’re my friends, aren’t they?” Lara sighed. “That’s all, abi? I have to go. I’m meeting…” She lowered her gaze. “…at the library.” Then she shuffled away. Until she disappeared from sight, she never once turned to see the girl standing there, chest heaving, eyes brimming with tears she attempted to blink back, rubber band held in mid-pull.
Owner let the band go, doubling over to sob.
In this memory, Shame had been unable to thrive on Owner’s lingering wrongness of the affection she carried, but it flourished under something else: the knowledge that she never measured up.
“She really shouldn’t have settled.” Lingerie’s lips were pinched.
“This may have ended badly, but at least it brought us Adesuwa,” Mufti offered.
“The rubber band thing got worse,” Occasion said quietly, reminding her sisters of all the times their Owner had chosen to subdue her emotional pain with something else.
“I think we make terrible shock absorbers,” Princess said in a voice that echoed Occasion’s.
“We’re really bad at showing emotional states,” Mufti agreed.
“We try,” Comfort countered. “It’s humans who choose not to see. It’s not our fault.”
“The only thing we know how to be is clothes,” Lingerie said.
Adesuwa was the name of Owner’s Person.
Uniform and all her sisters (except, perhaps, Lingerie) were fond of her. To them, she was Adesuwa of the sun’s warmth after a good wash. Adesuwa who had overheard the conversation between Owner and Lara because she had been hiding in the uncompleted building, skipping her classes. Adesuwa who looked at Owner the way Clothes regarded their Owners: precious, indifferent to the sort of body their Owners had because the person who owned it was the only thing that mattered.
In the weeks following her conversation with Lara, Owner had taken a pair of scissors to her hair and tried to change her wardrobe, giving out most of the clothes in Princess’s, Mufti and Occasion’s domains. During that time, Adesuwa had tried to become Owner’s friend, but her efforts were met with disinterest. Adesuwa was in the same class as Owner. She was abrasive, usually mistaken for saucy, and had an opinion on everything. Their paths hadn’t crossed in junior year because Adesuwa had been in another arm of JS3.
Four weeks had gone by and Adesuwa wasn’t getting anywhere with Owner. She offered to read with Owner, visited Owner in the hostel, and told Owner details about herself; which Owner treated with aloof politeness.
Owner had been on her way back to the hostel with Adesuwa tagging along when the other girl sighed and went quiet. Curious, Owner glanced at her. Adesuwa quiet was something that almost never happened.
“I’m tired,” Adesuwa said.
“I’m tired of trying to be your friend while you treat me like I am disturbing you.”
Owner avoided Adesuwa’s pointed stare.
“I was trying to be nice because I felt sorry for you o. Because I know how it feels to like someone who doesn’t like you back. But—”
Owner’s head snapped up. “What?”
“Lara na. Didn’t you use to like that proud ?d? in science class? Is her name not Omolara?”
Owner struggled to speak above her heart pounding in her ears. “Did she tell you that?”
“Why would she tell me? Are we friends? I overheard you guys talking about it that day,” she paused. “All I’m saying is that it’s okay that the girl you liked didn’t like you back, and that you’re not alone. Me too, the senior I liked didn’t like me back. She graduated last year. Aunty said she had been using me to experiment.” She kissed her teeth. “Am I a specimen?”
“I know some girls do it with girls here for one reason or another. But me, I’m not going to do it with someone I don’t like. What is that one sef? Once you catch feelings, they start acting like what I don’t know.” She turned to Owner. “Were you saying something?”
Owner shook her head, a smile tugging at her lips. She had walked a couple of steps when she noticed Adesuwa wasn’t following. She raised a brow at the girl. “Are you coming or not? I’ll make chocobambam for you.”
Adesuwa chortled and hurried to catch up. “The senior’s name was Aisha…” she began.
“Even if things went wrong a few months after, this was still a good memory,” Princess said.
“How hypocritical,” Lingerie said.
“What is?” Uniform asked.
“She said the girls start to act up when you add feelings to the mix when that’s exactly what she had gone and done to Owner.”
“But she apologised for that, didn’t she?” Mufti asked. “She apologised for that a few weeks after they met again and she and Owner worked out their issues stemming from said event.”
“Doesn’t stop her from being a hypocrite.”
Uniform studied her sister. Adesuwa had always been a touchy subject for Lingerie; a Cloth borne out of the girl’s actions. Perhaps she represented the unresolved resentment Owner still harboured for Adesuwa, just like how the thought of Owner’s father made Uniform’s skin crawl. That man had spent years forcing Owner into boxes that didn’t fit and he never cared that they didn’t, with Owner trying to please, unable to say what she really wanted.
He had turned Uniform’s domain into Owner’s prison.
“But Owner forgave Adesuwa,” Princess insisted, backing Mufti up.
“I don’t know, Princess,” Mufti said. “Maybe she hasn’t. If she did, wouldn’t Lingerie have evolved by now?” Lingerie inhaled sharply.
“Mufti,” Comfort warned.
But Mufti had a point. When Owner changed her wardrobe during her heartbreak, Mufti’s appearance had gone from leggings, jeans, thigh-length tops and plain blouses, to a more tomboyish one of less frills, less leggings and less bright colours. That state had been Mufti’s unhappiest. Not because she disliked the clothes, but because this wasn’t Owner exploring, attempting to feel out what she felt expressed her best. But Owner trying to erase a part of herself, the part Lara had rejected.
Eventually, things had more or less gone back to the way they were before, and on the days where she didn’t feel bogged down by everything and nothing, Owner had found a balance for Mufti between who she was and who she wanted to become.
For the first fourteen years of Owner’s life, Uniform had projected the uniforms of the schools Owner had attended, and sometimes uniforms from other areas as well; choir, girls guides, native attires. Uniform prided herself on how prim they were. But in the four years leading up to Owner’s admission into a university, the uniform had become a source of her father’s disappointment. On her admission, the mandatory black and white of law students had slowly sapped the life out of Owner. It was only prestigious course in Art class that could rival the medicine and engineering of Science, which her father found out too late she had overlooked.
Princess had evolved from the purple gown into one or two dresses since her birth. Given Owner’s downward spiral, her domain had only been visited once or twice. She currently wore the dress Owner had worn to her high school graduation party. A black, sequined thing, the hem consisted of wisps of cloth that swished back and forth when Owner walked. She had bought the dress behind her father’s back, the jewellery as well, gotten a weave fixed in and begged a roommate to do her makeup.
However, Owner hadn’t counted on her brother convincing her father to show up to the graduation. Before he yelled at her that only prostitutes and old women losing their beauty wore makeup and dressed the way she did, before he asked her to wipe that thing off her face while her classmates watched and her brother fumed, Owner had felt the same way she felt dancing in her room when she took her spot with the other graduating students.
Princess had cried the first few days after that incident, stuck in a dress that carried the scratchiness of a bad memory.
Comfort rarely evolved, but sometimes the camisole and boxer shorts Owner wore underneath her bathrobe would change while the bathrobe itself recorded small alterations. A palm oil stain from a yam and oil meal eaten long ago, a missing belt Owner’s brother had thrown away because she’d once hit him with it, the washed-out well-worn appearance she took pride in. But that was before. Well-worn had become lived-in, shabby. Washed-out had become lack-lustre, without life.
With the light slowly dying out in her eyes, Occasion had evolved into something that was no longer a Cloth, but the embodiment of an Owner in limbo. Lingerie, however, was still the same Cloth that had popped into existence with the definitiveness of Rejection finding its mark on a bared heart. A matching pair of lacy underwear Owner had bought on a whim the one time she allowed herself sneak out with her roommates.
Uniform’s sisters had stopped arguing to listen to her thoughts. She closed her eyes. Maybe the answer was in the memories. She felt Mufti join her, then Princess, Comfort, Occasion, and then Lingerie, albeit grudgingly.
Owner had spent almost two years in her new school, and fourteen months had passed since she found out Adesuwa knew about Lara. In the weeks leading up to this memory coded by Uniform, Adesuwa had become subdued in Owner’s presence. She always seemed to be on the verge of saying something and would frequently glance at Owner’s face and then glance away. But she was still opinionated and she was still Owner’s friend. A friend whose touches left a fieriness that crackled and kept burning even when contact had ceased. This was a torch unlike the one she carried for Lara; it needed no kindling. It was a burning bush nestled in Owner’s skin. One she refused to approach.
During one of Adesuwa’s quick scans of her face, Owner had asked, “What? What are you always searching for on my face?”
The new staff quarters had remained uncompleted and they loitered away some of their afternoons there. Adesuwa jumped down from the window sill she had been sitting on. She paced, stopped, bit her finger and gave Owner a serious look.
“What is it?” Owner asked, tone hanging between amusement and impatience.
“Do you want to kiss me?”
“I’m asking if you want to kiss me.”
“Yes, I heard you before. I just don’t understand what brought about this question.”
Adesuwa threw her hands up. “Do you want to kiss me or not? Because I want to kiss you.”
“Uh…” Owner slid off the window sill. “Why?”
She studied Adesuwa, tall and of awkward angles, standing inches away from Owner. Adesuwa’s back was straight, nostrils flaring, and Owner knew. Owner’s gaze dropped to her feet, heat searing her skin. “You’ve kissed that Chike in Commercial class and that female Labour Prefect with the kpomo mouth—”
Adesuwa frowned. “She doesn’t have kpomo mouth, you just don’t like her.”
“—And that your Aisha.”
“—She’s not my Aisha. She’s married now.”
“You’ve kissed all these people. I, on the other hand, have not kissed anybody.”
“I don’t have any experience. What if I mistakenly bite your tongue or something?”
Adesuwa coughed out a laugh. “We will not use tongue if that’s what you’re afraid of,” she said. “But do you or do you not want to kiss me, Chinecherem?”
Owner raised her head. Adesuwa’s teeth were worrying her lower lip, her hands clenched. Owner must have taken too long to reply because disappointment bled the anticipation from Adesuwa’s body and her face fell.
Owner inhaled and let herself be scorched. “I want to kiss you,” she whispered.
Princess sighed dreamily and Lingerie huffed.
Adesuwa took one step, then another. She lowered her head and placed her lips delicately on Owner’s.
The memory rudely cut off. Images flew by, blurring.
“Lingerie,” Mufti hissed. “What are you doing?”
Uniform knew where Lingerie was taking them before the memory settled. A blanket heavy with the ache of rejection smothered the giddiness of the previous memory. Uniform had to gasp. The five of them (before Lingerie came into existence) had watched it happen, but it was an experience privy only to Lingerie, just like Owner’s near-death experience was felt only by Occasion, something she kept to herself and the sisters didn’t want in on anyway.
This memory was a touchy subject for Lingerie. One the sisters knew not to disturb, but with irritation rolling off her, Lingerie had let the memory crash into her sisters and they all sank.
Uniform became Lingerie who was also Owner and Owner became Lingerie and all the other sisters too, clad in a matching pair of lacy underwear they had shown off to their roommates, their attention on Adesuwa as they modelled the underwear.
They hadn’t noticed Adesuwa grow uncomfortable under the scrutiny of another roommate who was always popping in when she knew Owner and Adesuwa would be the only ones in the room, not until this reliving of memory. Adesuwa would tell them, on their second meeting in a new state, in a new school, that this girl, Onome, had accosted her on her way to the bathroom one day and asked,
“I hope there’s nothing going on between you and my other roomie?”
“What are you talking about?” Adesuwa had asked.
Onome barrelled on. “I hope you know it’s a sin and I am mandated to report to the headmistress about things that go against school regulations?
She had been scared, Adesuwa later said and that fear was what had prompted her to say to Owner, to all the sisters, “Must you be so obvious about it?”
“That you like me?”
Their smile slipped from their face. “What does that mean?”
“Nothing.” Adesuwa shrugged. “I’m just saying, like can you try not to make it so obvious, eh? I mean, what exactly were you trying to do with this?” Adesuwa gestured to what they were wearing. “And you were looking at me the whole time.”
“It’s—” They broke off. Their breathing had gotten heavy. They refused to turn to where Adesuwa sat a few feet opposite them, on the lower bed of the second bunk in the room. “I’ll just take it off.” They quickly peeled the cloth off and stuffed it into the side of their suitcase.
After Adesuwa watched them do it, settled into her bed and turned her back to them, that was when Lingerie had appeared. She sat straight in her chair that had materialised when Owner had bought her Antecedent, glaring at the big screen as she clutched her chest in defiance.
Reliving the pain of this memory, Uniform’s sisters were doing their equivalent of Uniform’s heavy breathing and teeth gritting.
They could all feel what Owner and Lingerie had felt on that day: a heart shrinking into itself, shrivelling around a barb that sank a little deeper with the distance Adesuwa seemed determined to put between them. It twisted when Adesuwa refused to hold their hand when they were alone, or meet them in their staff quarters spot, or kiss them. What appeared to be a good decision at the time; paying extra money to be assigned the same room, was now working against Owner. The barb never left even when Adesuwa changed schools with the new term and cut off contact with them. And the Cloth that had been stuffed down the side of a suitcase, found its home in unremembered places, nostalgia keeping it from being discarded.
Lingerie pulled them out of the memory. “I’m sorry,” she said, her expression apologetic. “I just wanted you all to feel…” she trailed off. “I thought it wasn’t fair. None of you experienced it—not like I did. Owner appears to have moved on, but I’m the one stuck in this.” She swept a hand over herself.
“But you don’t have to be. Not really,” Princess said. “We can’t help the memories we carry,” She ran a hand over her gown as she spoke, “but I’m tired of letting it stop me. I want to have a little hope. Don’t we deserve that?”
Lingerie smiled. She sighed. “How did they re-meet?”
She knew, but this was the first time she had asked to relive it.
Princess beamed, and the sisters obliged Lingerie.
It took three years for Owner and Adesuwa to meet again. Two years of which Owner had spent at home retaking the JAMB exams in a bid to fulfil her father’s dreams of Law.
She had been sitting with her luggage outside the locked door of the room allocated to her by the university, hoping her roommate came by soon when the door of the room next to hers swung open. A girl stepped out. Their eyes met.
Everything in her body freezing, Owner dropped her gaze as a smile spread across the girl’s face. “Cheche?” she asked.
“Adesuwa.” Owner’s voice was barely audible.
“What are you doing here?” Adesuwa asked coming closer. “I didn’t know you gained admission here or wanted to go here in the first place.”
Owner mumbled something as Adesuwa continued, “Are you waiting for your roommate? I don’t think she has fully moved in. She’s still coming from home, but I saw her today sha. Do you want to wait in my room?”
“No.” The refusal was loud and sure. Adesuwa gaped at her in surprise and Owner blinked back. She didn’t hold eye contact for long. Adesuwa shifted from one foot to the other before settling down on the space beside Owner, who fought the urge to create a bigger space between them.
“I’m in my third year studying Mass Communication here,” Adesuwa said after a while. “Do you know that senior with the kpomo mouth also got admitted here? We met—”
“You’ve started again, as usual,” Owner bit out.
“You’re telling me information I really don’t care to know, just like you used to do in secondary school. What do you hope to achieve with this? Yes, we used to know each other, but that’s not a prerequisite for us becoming friends.”
“Prerequisite,” Adesuwa repeated, chuckling.
Owner glared at her. “What’s so funny?”
“You said prerequisite in a normal conversation?”
“And how is that funny?”
“Because it’s you, madam, you.”
Owner huffed and looked away. As if on cue, her roommate appeared and Owner hurried in after her, but on her last lap to her room with the rest of her luggage, she found Adesuwa there waiting. She really hadn’t changed; chipped front tooth, lips never still, like she was brimming with something. With her hooded eyes, she had perfected an expression that conveyed intensity and had also filled out her gangly frame. The brown of her skin was healthy, blonde braids vivid against her face. She looked good.
Owner’s heart juddered and Mufti in this memory creased in response. Adesuwa had been good. And she was the one still nursing the barb of rejection.
“Why are you still here?” she said harshly. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
Adesuwa shrugged. She smiled a familiar smile of hers. The one of warmth, that told Owner she was something precious. “I’m really happy to see you, Cheche.”
That was how Adesuwa’s return into Owner’s life began.
Eagerly, unabashedly, just like she had done in secondary school until she coaxed Owner into a reluctant camaraderie. But her abrupt departure from school and the incident that birthed Lingerie coloured their interactions. The barb present, unforgotten. A wariness and hurt that held on tightly to Owner and told her not to thaw too quickly.
On most of Owner’s good days, when her body wasn’t a weight she could lug to classes whose walls seemed so vast and at the same time so small that they could collapse on her at any minute, when she wasn’t pretending that everything was fine to her brother and she wasn’t wasting his money to her father, she would let Adesuwa into her room and they’d watch a movie or talk—with Adesuwa doing most of the talking. It was during one of those moments—Owner reining in a laugh, warning herself not to get too comfortable—that she found Adesuwa studying her. She stood from the floor and took a spot beside Owner on the bed.
“Why are you keeping me at arm’s length?” she asked.
“Is it—is it because of what happened when we were in secondary school? Is that why you’re keeping me at a distance?”
“No one’s keeping you at a distance.”
“Chinecherem, your hands become fists every time I come near.”
Owner unclenched her hands. She tried to even out her breathing. “You left me. You ignored me, treated me like dirt, and then you left me. No closure, no nothing. You just disappeared.”
“I know. I’m sorry I left, but the school was becoming expensive. My mother thought it was better for me to skip SS3, write my WAEC and NECO at another school as an outside student.”
“That’s not the point!” Owner’s irritation boiled over and Comfort, the one who had collected this memory, let them know how it felt through the link: the unpleasant crackling of fabric against skin that was averse to it.
Adesuwa lowered her head. She picked at her fingers, her tone sincere. “I’m sorry I hurt you. I—I was afraid. I thought I was protecting y—” She glanced at Owner’s face and her shoulders sagged.
“Protecting who? From what?”
Adesuwa told the story of Onome. The barb did not go away, but it eased a little. And eased some more when Owner took in Adesuwa’s face. Her teeth worrying her lip, expression apologetic and hopeful. Owner’s mind went back to the girl who had proclaimed she wanted to kiss Owner and asked if Owner wanted to kiss her too.
Owner still did. Even after everything. She sighed. “This doesn’t give you a pass on anything. I’m still angry at you. There are different ways you could have handled that.”
“I really wish you had told me.”
“We could have figured it out together.”
“Will you stop saying you know and just—” Owner balked. Adesuwa’s face was inches away from hers and she was smiling. Owner turned away. She rubbed a hand against her chest, skin alight and heart thundering against the barb she knew, in that moment, would eventually disappear.
“I liked you more, you know?” she suddenly said. “You may have liked me first, but I liked you more.”
Adesuwa waited until Owner was forced to glance at her. She held Owner’s gaze. “Yes, you liked me more before,” she said. “But I know how to like you properly now.”
Uniform felt Lingerie scoff through their connection. But this action was fond, without scorn. She reached over and squeezed her sister’s hand.
Adesuwa leaned back into the bed, seemingly unaware of what her words had done to Owner’s heart, she asked casually. “Why are you studying law, sef? I’ve always wanted to ask. Why this school? I thought you’d study English and go to UI or something.”
Owner copied her position, closing her eyes. She used the time to gather her thoughts, willed her heart to be still, before beginning. She started small, with the reason she was studying something she didn’t think was meant for her and with time, the passing of days and weeks, she told Adesuwa about the other things, the numbness, the self-hate, the anger. And Adesuwa would listen, be present, and try to comfort Owner in a way that was uniquely her.
Sometimes it was enough. Other times it wasn’t. But Owner kept this to herself, afraid to bother, to taint what they were building little by little with her problems.
On one of their many late-night talks, Adesuwa—barging into Owner’s room when Owner’s roommate had gone home for the weekend, too lazy to go back to her room for a change of clothes—had reached for one of Owner’s on the hanger above her head. It was a faded oversized thing with the words “Jollof of the Partee” printed neatly across it. Adesuwa examined the cloth in amusement. “What is this one?”
Owner lowered the book she was reading. “I stole it from my brother. His hobby is branding t-shirts with art and quotes he came up with himself. He’s the only one who thinks it’s funny. But he has customers so people must like it too.”
“Why did you take it?” Adesuwa asked.
Owner quirked a brow at her. “Because it’s his favourite shirt?” Stealing her brother’s clothes was much better than him buying her clothes. Most of which she wouldn’t be caught dead in.
Adesuwa pulled off her blouse. Her bra came next. She shimmied out of her jeans and slipped the shirt on. Owner raised the book she was holding to her face, swallowing.
“Now, it’s mine,” Adesuwa announced.
Because the shirt was in Comfort’s domain, the Cloth had spent the next few days crowing over the new development. Clothes changed and were discarded several times over. Sharing was something Clothes liked because it gave them a chance to experience what it was like to be inhabited by another body without the obligation of storing memories. When the person wearing the cloth shared a connection with the Owner, the Cloth was attuned to every feeling the wearer experienced when it came to the cloth’s Owner, through the brush of skin against fabric.
“She likes Owner like mad,” Comfort had said the first time Adesuwa had worn the shirt. “She gets these bursts of tingles and gooseflesh all over when Owner looks at her a certain way, I’m telling you. I wonder how her Clothes feel?”
Although the Clothes knew other Clothes existed, they couldn’t interact outside of the dimension created in the abstractness of their Owner’s bodies. The shirt still remained Owner’s and in Comfort’s domain. She told them Adesuwa may have taken it, but Adesuwa didn’t think of it as hers, but rather a proxy for Owner, a comfort she could seek out when Owner wasn’t there to provide it.
“Like a Cloth,” Princess had said.
Lingerie was the first to leave the psychic link. “When Adesuwa told Owner’s brother that Owner was going through a hard time in school, she had only been trying to help. So was Owner’s brother when he confronted Owner’s father about it.”
“Owner’s father’s the villain in this story,” Mufti said.
“I don’t think there are any villains,” Lingerie replied. “Just circumstances and decisions people make regarding those circumstances. What if Owner hadn’t introduced Adesuwa to her brother during their matriculation ceremony? What if Owner’s brother hadn’t confronted their father? What if Owner hadn’t gotten that F that probably broke everything? He blamed her for failing, for not trying hard enough. And she blamed herself for being inadequate. For…everything. We all knew this was coming—her thoughts in the last few months. I hate that all we are is spectators in this story.”
“Owner’s father didn’t have to say those awful things to her,” Princess said. She had gone back to pulling out the sequins in her gown.
“But he did,” Comfort replied, frowning. “And now we’re here.”
“Was it the F that broke everything or her father?” Mufti asked.
“Can we go back to the fun memories, please?” Princess’s voice was weary.
“She’s here,” Occasion’s tone, low as it is, was filled with an urgency that cut through her sisters’ dismay. She was sporting a faraway expression, like she hadn’t come out of her psychic stupor.
The room warped and rearranged itself, transforming into a movie-theatre with seven chairs. On the screen, beside the bed that housed the form of their Owner, sat Adesuwa, her hands tightly gripping a familiar cloth on her thighs.
“Since we’re all announcing things we hate, this is mine: I really hate that it was Adesuwa that found her,” Mufti whispered and Uniform’s heart, still a caricature, but also a sign that their Owner’s was still beating, twisted in reply.
“How did you know she was here without tuning into the big screen?” she asked Occasion.
Occasion’s attention remained on the screen. Realisation washed over Uniform and spread to the rest of her sisters.
“How long?” she said the words quietly, afraid if her voice was too loud, it would splinter the hope.
“A few minutes.”
“I can’t smell you anymore,” Adesuwa was saying on the screen, a catch in her voice, like speaking them caused her a great deal of pain. “I know I said I’d bring you some clothes, but I’ve been avoiding coming here because I hate seeing you like this. Azubuike keeps me updated, but it makes no difference because you’re still here and the only things I can smell are antiseptic and ethanol and clean clothes and hopelessness. What do I do with this—” She held up the shirt, the one that used to be Owner’s brother’s and then Owner’s. “—if I can’t smell you on it and you don’t even smell like you anymore, eh?”
She closed her eyes and her tears spilled, her breath an audible rattling in her chest. She reached for the handbag at the foot of the chair beside her and brought out a folded white fabric.
“Azubuike and I got this for you. It’s okrika, but that doesn’t matter because we believe you’re going to make it yours. I washed it, but Azubuike hasn’t branded it yet. I told him not to, because I want you to be the one to come up with what you think the shirt should say. I want to see you wear it. So I can steal it,” she broke off into a laugh that ended on a heavy exhale.
“But you can’t do that if you’re here like this. Do you know Azubuike moved out of your father’s house? He got an apartment. For the both of you. He’s waiting, and I’m waiting too.”
She carefully placed the cloth on the table beside the bed, grabbed some tissues from her handbag and hurried out the door. A minute went by, then another, and then Owner opened her eyes. Her hand was shaking when she picked up the cloth. She unfolded it and held it up to her face. The action overexerted her and her vision blurred, but she held on.
“You know, the reason she stole that shirt from her brother is slightly the same reason Adesuwa took it from her,” Comfort began. “It had felt like a cocoon, the steadiness of a brother loved. Until it became hers. Her own cocoon, her own comfort. A love given and received.”
“Is she going to put this one on?” Mufti asked.
“I hope she does,” Princess said.
“I don’t think she has the strength for that right now,” Lingerie said. “She just woke up remember?”
Owner spread the cloth over her torso, tucked the neckline into the sides of her neck and then smoothed rest of it down. It took effort, but when she was done, she gave a tiny smile and her eyes fluttered close.
Occasion’s image flickered, the hospital gown changing to a pair of sweatpants and the branded shirt with its “Jollof of the Partee” label emblazoned in front. Uniform found herself free from the black skirt and white shirt she had been wearing for what felt like an eternity into some other corporate wear. But this one didn’t feel as constraining as the last.
Comfort’s attire had changed colours and brands and lost its drab appearance. Mufti’s expression was particularly smug at the leggings and blouse that had replaced her previous outfit, and Princess gave a squeal of delight to see her dreaded gown replaced by a yellow flowy one. She even had petals pinned to her hair and a bouquet in her hand. Lingerie’s outfit only changed colours, but she seemed pleased with the change.
Just as quickly as it came, it was over, and they were back to their previous manifestations. But that was okay, because those glimpses, for them, represented a promise of things to come.
Princess squealed again and sisters turned their attention to her.
On the last chair in the row, the one beside Princess, the one that used to be empty, sat a girl. She looked no different from them, frame and features an exact replica of their Owner, of all the sisters. The new girl was wearing the shirt Adesuwa and Azubuike had bought for Owner. But where that one had been plain, this one was adorned with words.
Mufti squinted and leaned backward, reading out the words written on the cloth’s rear. “Heart is what matters.”
“Didn’t Lara say that?” Princess whispered excitedly to Uniform. “We just visited this memory!”
“I want to kiss you,” Lingerie said, reading off the sleeves of the shirt.
Occasion peered at the front. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” she said softly.
“I…I like this girl,” Uniform read, unable to help her smile.
“I know how to like you properly now,” Princess joined in.
“I think the words on the cloth are conversations Owner has experienced,” Mufti said.
“What do you think that means?” Comfort asked.
The new girl stood up. The blouse stopped short of her knees and on her chest was the word: “Flower.” She waved to the sisters, a broad smile on her face. “Hi,” she said. “My name is Memento.”
About the Author
Ada Nnadi is presently studying Psychology at the University of Lagos, Nigeria and will one day be the mother of many cats, two birds (because that’s the closest they’ll ever have to getting a pet dinosaur)—and maybe a small dog. Their story “Tiny Bravery” co-won the 2020 Nommo Awards for short fiction. Find them lurking on Twitter @adaceratops.