[Issue 11 / November 2014]
We are in my cousin’s sitting room, which is twice the size of my parents’ bedroom. I am seated by myself on a sofa by the door, while you will find six Pontius Pilates, if you like, sitting in a semi circle, preparing to turn me into an outcast any minute. I try not to look anyone in the eye. Not even Cousin Ikenna, or his wife, though both of them are aware of my situation before now. I remember how unsettled they were, they could barely move their lips. But that was two days before this family meeting.
I doubt my parents are still looking upon me as the redeemer. With how they are going about this, you’ll think I have become handicapped, or deformed. Though I am only seventeen, they are sounding as if I’ve just crossed forty and ended up bed-ridden. I see that they have no faith in me, not even faith in God, who can turn any wretched life around. I can understand their heartache, but I don’t see how it is important, since it is useless crying over broken eggs. Or what you cannot mend.
Ma is the first to come to her senses. She shoots a finger at me, as a policeman would a wilful taxi driver. Luckily, I am sitting four chairs away from her. She reminds me of my peers – Njideka, Onyeka, Nkechinyere, Oluchi, so-and-so – who have become legends for being stupid. Teenagers who got themselves misled by miscreants, girls whose combined stupidity, multiplied by two, was nothing like mine.
Don’t you know how lucky you are? Pa says, scratching his goatee. How many girls have relatives who are willing to help them? But it seems you’ve only grown fat and foolish.
If you made good of your own life, I’m tempted to respond, would I be living with your younger brother’s youngest son?
Uncle, it’s okay, Ikenna says. He looks more frustrated than letdown, frustrated, only because he will be babysitting his twins from now on, since his job hardly gives him breathing space, and his wife is just as busy. A technician, or electrician, I haven’t cared enough to find out. But he usually returns home with odd scraps and fiddles with them till he is done in.
I long to take a bite of the fresh garden eggs in the tray on the centre table, but everyone seems to be avoiding them. None of them have made any attempt to sip their drinks; the bottles are still capped. Not even Pa who begins his day with a tot of ogogoro.
Look at her eyes, I hear Ma hissing. Her face pulled so tight it seems it might snap. I can’t believe you have no brain! In her jumbo anger, her face takes the shape of a cobra. I want to smile, but have to play along in this whole drama, so I don’t set off more bangers in the air.
Were you expecting to be crowned Miss Daftest Girl? Pa makes a joke, but no one is laughing.
I feel pity for Pa, face like wood, looking older than his fifty-five years. Here is a man who spent the best part of his manhood lounging at bars and snoozing in brothels, while his mates were busy at school preparing themselves into somebody. I wonder what Ma saw in him.
You’ve dashed every hope of becoming somebody oo, my uncle says. His voice tends to have an echo, maybe because he is round from head to toe, with a wobbly potbelly that is bigger than two pillows pressed together. He is a Chief and Doctor, so it is easier for him to think everybody has to be somebody.
I feel like yawning, but don’t want to disrespect him. I pick my nose instead. Be yourself, Bro Godson once said. Ambition does not count for anything in the sight of God, and that’s plain enough for me.
You could have been somebody oo, Chief Dr. Ibeawuchi goes on, nodding his head that is twice as large as Pa’s. A graduate; a nurse, at worst. Somebody.
I flick him a glance, as if he were a fly. I don’t have to be somebody, I hold myself back from responding. You think you are all smart? Of all our First Ladies, how many were known to have passed through the university, if education was that important to becoming somebody? I still remember hearing one blunt man scoffing at the ex governor’s wife (or was it his mother?) on the radio. She didn’t see the drab walls of a campus, he mocked, yet she was able to get some lawyers and lecturers licking her fingers just so they could be appointed as state commissioners.
You’ve brought shame upon yourself, Adaobi! Not me.
I cannot help but observe that Ma looks thinner now than the last time we saw, some three years ago. I hear Grandma’s flinty voice in hers; a secondary schoolteacher who, it was said, died of heartache because her only surviving daughter (two were sicklers who died in their teens) had given up her studies for a life of toil with a trailer driver. It is bitterness not poverty, I realise, that is eating Ma dry.
In silence, I watch them, a sketch of a woebegone family, whose collective aspiration has come apart, bemoaning my fate, describing my situation as shit on our surname. None of them thought that I might wish for something different from what they had laid out for me. I’d fit into their ideas, they assumed. Fulfil their individual expectations, like I have no life of my own.
My cousin’s wife enrolled me at a hairdressing salon five years ago, but then switched me to learn tailoring no less than a year later, so I could have plenty of time to watch over her toddlers. She eventually pulled me out from under the wings of the seamstress before I could learn to pedal a sewing machine, saying she had bigger plans for me. The plans are nowhere on hand, and I’m still idle to date.
They want me around them, only because I am a ready hand. I know they know that I don’t have the head for numbers, and money hardly entices me, which is why neither of them has insisted that I go back to secondary school. I can even remember the number of times she prevented me from visiting our village during Easter and Christmas since her bank job rarely allows her to go looking for a stand-in maid.
By the way, Cousin Ikenna never cared to ask what I would love to do with my life, though he has been good to me. I used to be pimply and skinny (and smelly, I was told), but now I appear well fed; a girl in full bloom. Had I remained in that village, I would be looking as scruffy as Ma, from petty trading and farm work. Bearing all this in mind, I look at Ebube. Even she has the mouth to call me daft – after all the babysitting and housekeeping I’ve been rendering since I began living with them at the age of eleven? I’m glad she is feeling crushed. She thinks I can’t figure out what I want; I can be deceived, used up, and discarded. She thought that I was going to be around longer, much longer than my elder sister had been with her husband’s own elder sister. Akudo looked after four children, two of whom are now in the university. Yet what has she to show for the sixteen years she lived with our cousin’s family? Nothing! Now she is mid-thirty, and may never get hitched to any young man.
Satan, you are a liar, Lolo Ibeawuchi snaps her fingers, breaking the silence.
As I look away from her, I notice that the powder on her face is more than enough to smear two white serviettes beige. She is prettier and far younger than Ma, but somehow she has more bags under her eyes than Ma has. The eye-bags, I suppose, could be the result of tears shed from the defeats her husband has suffered in politics.
Ma keeps stabbing me with her stare. The air in the sitting room grows warmer on my neck, even with the windows open, the fan blowing hard. The iron within that has kept me so far unmoved starts to give. I bow my head and slouch in my seat. As one who is rejected, I shut my eyes against their hate. They will believe that I am hopeless and ungrateful.
Is it shame? Perhaps it is concern that takes hold of me. I’m beginning to choke. I can see myself tearing up.
My cell phone gives a cuckoo-o-o peal, just then. I check the caller’s ID, my chest stiffens. I do not know if I should answer the call or not. My uncle clears his throat. I catch Pa twisting his lips in distaste. Lowering my gaze, I press the ‘Busy’ tone. But the phone peals again, I clutch it; my palms are sweating. I try not to give in to panic as I engage the busy tone again.
My calf muscles slowly bunch up. I am praying it does not ring a third time. I feel the vibration in my fingertips – and the whole of my arms becomes a wire – before I hear the beep: a text message. As I read the concern in Bro Godson’s message, the muscles in my calves begin to loosen up. He is only asking to know how I am holding up, what decision my family has taken, what I have to suffer. Have I been disowned? His message ends with: It is well.
Call you back later, I consider texting him right away, but I don’t. That he is concerned, I say to myself, is all that matters for now. It is well – the words sound like a blessing. From heaven. Suddenly I can picture him typing this simple blessing with a smile on his face, and I am reassured by this image. I open my mouth to fetch some air. Yes, I could be my own kind of somebody. I don’t feel I am choking any more. Oh yes, they can put me down, all they want. Call me stupid from here to Damascus, but I will not let them make me feel that I’m worth no more than a rat’s shit. After all, if I were to die right now, would anyone be willing to share the coffin with me? I want to smile but I clench my jaw.
They seem to pick out the slight smile around my parched lips. They glance at one another, then at me. They no longer appear scandalised, or horrified. They start pelting me with questions:
Where’s the idiot? What does he do? I hope he is not one of those crooks looking for pockets to pick?
Is he an osu? Is his mother a witch?
Hope his father is somebody oo? They have somebody in their lineage oo?
Are his sisters married? Are they divorced?
My heart goes into a swirl. I take some deep breaths. I feel a bit heady, like I have just completed a round of feet-stamping prayers. Reinvigorated.
He is not a miscreant, I announce.
Someone gives a low mocking laugh.
Uh, so what is he?
He’s working to be a pastor.
A pastor, I repeat.
Ma grips her shabby headscarf, crumpling it in her hands. I know the devil lives in you, she sounds hysterical. Always known you were sent to torment me.
How can a pastor do this to you? Lolo Ibeawuchi snorts. With the overblown look of disbelief in her eyes, I won’t be surprised that she is secretly pleased with my situation. Some women are like that, gleeful over other’s woes.
The light goes off suddenly. Chief Dr. Ibeawuchi lets out a cuss. That’s what you get when you install a riffraff as the minister of power, what rubbish oo!
Although I feel limp, I grin dimly. My uncle sometimes strikes me as a caricature of Mr. Ibu, a fatter clown on TV, even though I dare not make this known to anyone. Three times he has contested for the state governorship – under different opposition parties, in different elections, his son often laments this fact – and three times he lost by great margins. He has become a critic of the ruling party ever since.
My cousin runs at once to the balcony where his generator is and cranks it on. He bounds into the corridor, we hear a clang. The light is back. He plops himself back on the sofa with a sigh. Then he turns to stare at me, or through me, it seems. After a while he sighs again. He must be thinking: So Bro Godson has been fooling around in my flat on the pretext of studying the scripture with you?
I feel like giggling at this thought. But I don’t want anyone feeling scandalised once more. I place both palms over my belly. I will miss his cuddly six-year-olds, even as I’m looking forward to seeing my own dream in the flesh.
Pa starts to laugh like a parrot. He pauses and says, He is not a miscreant, in a playful nasal tone, as if he has snot in his nostrils. Then he shakes his head, repeats, He is not a miscreant, over and over again, until Ma’s face is pinched tight and she shouts at him to shut up.
Chief Dr. Ibeawuchi heaves himself up. His chin is struggling not to sag into his neck as he plods the sitting room back and forth, his arms behind his back, his face a mass of thoughts, as stern as my former village headmaster’s.
Hunger pangs start clawing at my stomach. I glance at the clock, it is past two. This drama has lasted four hours! The garden eggs and kola-nuts are still untouched, the drinks, too. A wasp misses its way into the sitting room, dances over the tray, perches on a kolanut, then whizzes off.
Is he willing to marry you oo? my uncle asks testily, like he has now written me off outright as some pest to be ignored.
Before I can answer him, the twins dart out of their room. One of them sidles up to me. Gazing up at me, he lifts his arm and feels my brow, and says, Aunty Adaobi, are you ill?
Of course, I’m ILL, I almost snap, but I rub his hair and tell him with a smile that I’m fine. He frowns as he glances around the sitting room, then slides across the floor to where his brother is nestling at the feet of their mother. I catch my uncle narrowing his eyes at his son.
You two, go back to your room, Cousin Ikenna promptly orders.
The twins turn to him and chorus, No!
My cousin hardens his face, and the twins act as though they will burst into tears. But they don’t, they only sulk and go scooting back to their room.
Chief Dr. Ibeawuchi repeats his question to me. I mope at his shiny black shoes, then up at the open arms of Jesus in the framed photograph on the wall. Come unto me, all ye heavy-laden is written in white block letters beneath his burning heart. Gazing into the blue eyes, I am surprised that not one of them has yet expressed worry about my situation, only raw indignation. I’m also surprised that anyone should think that I have to choose a life of salary when I could just as easily become a full-time housewife.
It takes some minutes before I reply with a nod.
Then it’s settled, Chief Dr. Ibeawuchi booms, with a shrug.
I sense that he is fine with my situation, he has known beforehand that I’d turn out this way, his brother’s children will be playing second fiddle to his own. Like father, like children.
Uwa emebiela, Pa says, shaking his head dolefully. He must have boasted about me to his friends.
The world has not crumbled, for me at least. For them, maybe. Perhaps they will find out someday: My dream was never to go anywhere near a university, or to slave away behind a desk in an office from seven to six. I don’t want to end up like my elder sister, glum and single. Or like Cousin Ikenna either, who complains about too much work and peanuts pay. Certainly, not like his wife who wishes she doesn’t have to work, but since she earns more than her husband she has to go on anyway. Having seen that busyness and discontent often go together, I had vowed to myself not to work for anyone. But how was I going to pull it off? What were my options? I had no answers to those questions which caused me lots of headache at the time. But as every believer knows, or as we are wont to say, our Lord works in mysterious ways, and I am a witness. And a partaker.
Good luck came my way one Sunday after service. I had gone to pick up my cousin’s twins at the children’s ministry, when Bro Godson made a gesture to me. With the boys in tow, I sashayed over to where he sat. We spoke briefly but warmly. Bro Godson appeared to me as a brother who would dote on a sister. I remember he told me, I am beloved of God. The next Sunday, we chatted again – much longer this time, but before my cousin and his family drove out of the church premises, Bro Godson had promised to help nurture my faith.
Now I can’t help smiling as I feel a sudden kick in my womb – just about four months old, but my baby has such strong kicks. Who can say? He may end up becoming a footballer, more popular than Okocha. What more could a village girl wish for?
A simple enough dream, if you like.
An Alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike has participated in residencies in Ghana, India, Switzerland and Italy. He was one of the winners in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition in 2006 and 2008 respectively, and has twice been shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2007 and 2011. He is the author of Dark through the Delta (poems), Tears in her Eyes (short stories) and Aridity of Feelings (poems). His children’s books include: Sam and the Wallet, The Runaway Hero, The Boy Who Throws Stones at Animals and Other Stories, and Tim the Monkey and Other Stories.