Sixty Minutes


It was one of those rare occasions where I woke up a second before my alarm rang. And so I stretched and turned it off before it had the chance to wake up the whole neighbourhood. Aunty was going to be awake in the next sixty minutes. That’s all I had. Sixty minutes before the routine chaos would begin.

Ever since I moved into Uncle’s house, I’d come to value those sixty minutes like my life depended on it. And in a way it did, because the exact second that single hour was over, my life would be thrown into hell for the next eighteen hours or more. It was a hell I’d come to accept. A hell of my own making. What was the need fighting against something I had no control over? At least I had a roof over my head and food to eat. Sometimes.

So, I laid on my bed that morning in the darkest hour of the night just before the day broke and tried for the seventh year in a row not to think of the life I had before it all went south. Not to think of how I looked forward to this particular day a lifetime ago. Christmas. It lost all meaning for me now. The Johnsons had made sure of that.

I shifted uncomfortably in my rock-hard bed and tried snuggling deeper in my thankfully, thick duvet. There was a whole level of work waiting for me in the next few minutes but maybe I could just close my eyes a little. Maybe I could give myself the luxury of a few minutes of bliss surrounded by crickets and the chill of the most looked-forward day in December. The 25th.

But I knew it couldn’t. Even though I tried not to think of it, I could feel my sixty minutes slipping away from my fingers. It was almost gone.

“Five,” I counted breathlessly.


“Three.” I shut my eyes so tight, I knew I’d see stars when I opened them and prayed earnestly that I would somehow magically be in another place when I woke up.

“Two.” But no, I was stuck here.


I would always be in this hell of my making.


I sighed and stood up from the bed. Letting Aunt Grace call me more than once was tantamount to a forfeiture of my morning meal. Christmas was already ruined for me. But I’d rather live my pathetic life on a tummy that didn’t grumble. “I’m coming, Aunty,” I yelled back.

It was work from there on. I placed the big kettle on the fire to start heating for my “delightful” cousins to take their baths and then rushed to Aunty Grace’s room, not forgetting to knock twice two seconds apart from each knock as I was instructed on my first day here. That day I’d been so confused. I thought I was coming to spend the holidays. Why were they giving me instructions like I was a...maid? I almost chuckled to myself, thinking about it now. I was such a naïve and oblivious little girl.

“I’m here Aunty,” I said as I walked into the room. Uncle Caleb’s snores were loud enough to wake up the dead. How did she manage a wink of sleep with such noise?

“Merry Christmas to you too, Mercy,” her constantly disdainful tone no longer bothered me. But I swear it was so thick in the air, I could feel it gnawing at my cold, chaffed toes like little sharks. “Sometimes I like to believe you’re no longer the uncouth, uncivilised girl I picked from the slums, but times like these make me understand that the light is still far from you.”

I knew better not to speak. It was a trap she set every morning. Seeing if I would talk back to her like I did in the beginning. I knew where that had landed me and I wasn’t going to fall for it again.

Hissing like she was disappointed that I didn’t rise to the bait, Aunty Grace continued. “You know what today is. Musa is bringing the meat from the butcher's. I need the rice, soup and porridge cooked and ready before we get back from Church. I would have told you to follow us but knowing that you’ve never had the interest of God in your heart, there’s no need.”

Another trap. Two traps in three minutes. Aunty Grace was on a roll today. Unfortunately, I was going to rise to it like the foolish girl I was.

“I’ll make everything ready, Aunty. But I just wanted to remind you that I’ll be going to pay my respects later on.”

“What does that mean?”

I clenched my fists in the semi-darkness of the room and counted to three. Surely, she wouldn’t deprive me of the one thing I’d asked for. “Aunty, you promised that I could go to the cemetery and pay my respects to my family.”

“I remember no such thing.”

“Aunty, please you did,” I said desperately.

“Are you saying I’m a liar?” she thundered.

“No ma, I was just reminding you.”

“So now you’re implying I have amnesia.”

I kept quiet. It was a losing battle. But I needed to try. For the sake of my family. “Please ma, let me just go.”

“You’re insane, Mercy. There’s so much to be done at home and you want to go joy-seeking? What level of ingratitude is this? After all I’ve done for you.”

I blinked and forced the tears back into my eyes. This monster wasn’t going to see me cry. Never again. “I’ll start preparing the food.”


As I left the room, it occurred to me that I could no longer hear Uncle’s snoring. He must have listened to the entire ordeal. But he wasn’t going to say a word. A weak man who had let his heartless wife rule over him against his flesh and blood. I’d long stopped hoping that he would leap into my defence.

It was when The Johnsons left for Church that I let the tears flow. The ugly memories of seeing my parents and siblings dead on their bed from a poisonous herb they had consumed the previous night swept through my mind. I’d been back from boarding school with a smile on my face to meet an empty house that was already thick with the smell of death.

Physically shaking the thoughts from my head, I continued cooking. It wasn’t time to react yet. I’ll let this Christmas pass as uneventfully as the other seven Christmases had. My sixty minutes were enough for me. For now.


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