by Daniel Nkado
*** Find all posted chapters HERE.
The shiny dark blue jeep came to a halt just before the gnarled trunk of the mango tree. Innumerable green mangoes hung in silence all around the branches. Buzzing insects swirled round the wilting flowers.
Grace, eager and smiling, ran out through the back of the house. ‘Mama! Mama! Aunty Eunice!’ She rubbed her wet hands on her long flower dress to wipe off soap foam.
The front door of the bungalow, old and wobbly, squeaked and opened. Mama Grace came out, untying and tying back her wrapper. She walked toward her daughter and both of them stood side by side staring at the big car that just entered their compound, like it was their first time of seeing such a vehicle. And it might actually be. Cars were as rare as anything could be in Ifite.
The woman in the car peered at them through the back seat window. Seeing it was now time for her to come down, she gave the signal. The man in the driver’s seat came down first and walked to her door. The door gave a tiny click as it opened. He held it open for her.
Dr. Mrs. Eunice Ajayi, the only wife of Chief Andrew Ajayi, proud owner of Me&U Boutique and Chain of Stores, came down from the vehicle.
‘Good afternoon, Ma,’ Grace said, bowing.
‘Adanne m, nnoo!—welcome,’ Mama Grace joined.
Madam Eunice took off her dark glasses and applied a tiny smile. ‘Good afternoon, my dears, how do you do?’
Her measured smile was set firm on her perfectly made up brown face.
Neither Grace nor her mother responded. Even if they had understood English well, not when it was spoken by Aunty Eunice.
‘Ngwa, bataba—come in,’ Mama Grace said finally. ‘Grace, chair, fast!’
‘No, I’d rather stand, Aunty,’ Eunice said, fully in Igbo.
It showed clearly on Mama Grace’s face how happy she was that her cousin had spoken their native language.
‘She’d stayed so long in the city that she has completely forgotten her roots,’ Mama Grace had said to Papa Grace once, the first time Aunty Eunice mentioned she was going to take Grace to the city.
And even though Papa Grace had assured her she had no reason to worry, she knew she’d never really get rid of those thoughts. The thoughts of how the big cities changed people and they started to behave somehow.
‘Once our people go to those cities, they start doing oyibo even more than the real oyibos themselves.’ Her friend, Egodi, had said this one afternoon while they were returning from the market. Mama Grace had shaken her head, feeling bad about how the big cities were changing people. Their people.
So now that her only daughter was finally going to leave with this sophisticated city woman to one of those big cities, Mama Grace has seen all her worries return, soaring high to a dangerous height.
Her mollification, however slight it was, came from the fact that Eunice was still her Adanne. She tried to calm herself just as Papa Grace had advised her.
‘Keep the seat, Grace, I will stand,’ Aunty Eunice said as Grace returned with a slanting back chair. Grace dropped the chair.
Mama Grace looked at Eunice with that knowing look village people used to show they understood the reason behind the action of a city person. ‘Adanne m, you can sit. The seat is clean enough,’ she said.
It probably wasn’t. ‘I’ll be okay standing, Ugochi,’ replied Aunty Eunice.
Mama Grace kept still. At least she remembered her name and had called it correctly, and not with that annoying borrowed accent city people used to pronounce names they’d known all their lives, before their inadvertent departure.
‘What of Deh Okolo?’ Aunty Eunice asked.
‘My husband is yet to return. Perhaps before you finish your meal, he would be home.’
Meal? Aunty Eunice put on her small smile again. ‘I won’t eat today. Grace, go get your bags.’
Mama Grace shrugged in submission. She knew better than to start the unachievable task of trying to persuade Eunice to have a meal with them.
Aunty Eunice turned to Grace again, frowning. ‘Grace?’
Grace gave a startled bow. ‘Yes, Aunty.’
‘I said go and get your bags.’
‘Yes, Aunty.’ She gave Aunty Eunice’s shoes one last look before running into the house. She’d spent an awful amount of time wondering how Aunty Eunice had managed to balance her bulk on the tall and thin heels.
Grace appeared shortly with her blue Ghana-must-go bag folded to her belly. She looked at her mother and her desire to leave with Aunty Eunice dropped, if not momentarily vanished.
She wanted to go the ‘big and crowded’ city of Lagos, to see the tall buildings and roads so busy it took days to cross. Her friend, Chioma, had told her about these things, and seeing them for herself had always had her so excited.
But now she was going to leave the only people she’d known as family, the only house she’d called home to travel to the strange land, she didn’t feel as excited anymore.
She ran to her mother and both of them clung together. Aunty Eunice heard a sobbing breath and turned her face unconcernedly away.
She turned back and saw that they were still fastened to each other. She made a deliberate guttural sound. ‘You two had better get on with it already, it’s a long journey to Lagos, you know.’
Mama Grace released her daughter and crossed her left arm around her shoulders as she walked her to the car. She bent toward her ear and muttered something to her. Grace nodded fully.
The driver, tall and dark-skinned in his striped Polo shirt and blue jeans, took Grace’s bag to the boot.
Had he known the bag would be that light, he obviously wouldn’t have bothered.
He opened the back-seat door for his madam and waited till she was properly seated before closing the door. He opened the door to the passenger’s seat for Grace.
As she dragged toward the door, Grace set inquiring eyes to the slim driver. ‘What is your name?’ she asked, in her characteristic Grace-must-know-everything manner.
The man’s brows bunched together in a sudden frown. ‘Enter the car.’
Grace hastened into the vehicle and the door banged rather harshly behind her. She wondered what she had said so wrong, and then remembered the man might not have been paid.
The journey to Lagos was smooth, but long. Very long. Grace had spent most part of it asleep.
But now the car horn had awakened her and she could see through the headlight that they had come to a halt in front of a tall dark gate. It was dark already and she felt angry that she had slept so much and had missed seeing much of Lagos. Tomorrow, she assured herself. Tomorrow.
It had rained too and the wet windshield glistened in the light from the compound walls.
Suddenly the huge gates came apart. Grace had to crane her neck to see the short man that had opened them. The car swung into the compound and jolted to a halt.
Upstairs, Aunty Eunice drew back the plush curtains to reveal an exquisite living room. Across from the semi-circle of orange sofas with their matching cushions was the high plasma TV showing a program called ‘Comedy Club’. It was mute and as Grace saw the people on the screen laugh and laugh, she wondered what the much amusement was.
Though she did not see Aunty Eunice remove her shoes, she bent and pulled off her own yellow flip-flops and folded them behind her bag.
The round figure of a woman Grace knew at once was fatter than her age appeared from the opposite door. ‘Welcome, Madam,’ she said with a curt bow.
Her bold eyes scanned past Grace with little concern. She moved and carried her Madam’s handbag. ‘What shall I get you, Ma?’
Aunty Eunice gave a tired sigh, flopping down on the couch. ‘Juice, please.’
The woman bent and took off her Madam’s shoes. Holding them together with the brown leather bag, she said, ‘What flavour, Ma?’
‘Straight or mixed?’
‘If it’s mixed with anything tarter.’
The plump maid walked away and Grace’s eyes followed her. The closest thing to a juice she had taken before is Nutri C, colorful yellow sachets sold for only N20. Now she couldn’t understand this so much story about juice. She blotted out the urge to ask anybody anything though. It’s still quite early, she’d told herself.
The maid returned soon with a glass of pale yellow liquid and set it on the table before Aunty Eunice. She rose, folded her hands behind her with professional courtesy and waited. Grace watched her with great attention. Something about her was captivating. It could have been the way she moved, or talked, or simply her size.
Aunty Eunice took the glass and sipped from it. ‘Is my husband back?’
‘Yes Ma, but he got a call and rushed out again.’
‘Ok. You can go now.’ Something ran to her mind—Grace. ‘Ehm, Cecilia?’
‘Please, see Grace to her room.’
‘Which of the rooms, Ma?’
‘Find an empty room for her downstairs and see that she is fully refreshed.’
She turned her eyes to Grace. ‘Grace, this is Cecilia, our house manager. She is live-in so you pretty much going to be seeing her around all the time. Go to her whenever you need anything.’
Grace nodded, and then remembering a bow is more appropriate, she bowed. ‘Ok, Ma. Thank you, Ma.’
‘Follow me,’ Cecilia said.
Grace wondered why no emotion showed on her. Not on her face. Not in her voice either.
As they left, Aunty Eunice entered her room and took a bath.
She came out to the sitting room now wearing her flimsy pink nightgown. She hadn’t worn a bra and her breasts joggled as she walked. They were round and surprisingly very firm for her age.
Not more than ten minutes after she straightened herself on the couch, a rough bang landed on the door. Aunty Eunice opened her eyes and turned to the door.
There was another bang before the curtains were forced apart and the drunken figure of Andrew Ajayi staggered in.
Eunice sat up. She inhaled deeply, dousing off the sudden rush of emotions that flowed through her.
Andrew drew nearer his wife. He stared unintelligibly at her before he slurred, ‘Shi-shift for me.’
Before Eunice could move any bit, he pushed her aside and slumped to the couch next to her.
‘Andrew, you are drunk again, I can’t believe this.’ Eunice’s disappointment was as apparent on her face as it was in her voice.
Andrew looked at his wife, his face devoid of any readable emotion. ‘Baby, go and bring me food.’ When he saw his wife didn’t make any attempt of moving, he stretched an arm around her, pulling her to him, as if to kiss her.
Eunice pushed him off. She wrinkled up her nose in disgust. ‘Good God, Andrew, did you smoke too?’
Andrew gave a hollow, senseless laugh. ‘Go and bring me food.’
Eunice stood and crossed herself, studying the drunk that has come to replace the formerly handsome man she’d married eight years ago.
Where has all the handsomeness gone to now? The well-kept beard that once joined magically with his receding hairline to produce a surprising masculine charm now replaced by this bushy unkempt mess, the perfect brown complexion that seemed to shine in daylight nearly coming to spotty, finely-chiseled chest and stomach steadily acquiring extra flesh, Andrew had not remained the man he used to be.
But what’s more painful was that Eunice blamed herself for this radical change. Andrew may never have said it, but Eunice knew she was somehow implicated in it. And it wasn’t one of those things people have control over. No matter how powerful they are.
Andrew moved his hand through the air in awkward demonstration. ‘Woman, don’t just stand there. Go and get my food.’
Eunice gave vent to her fury. ‘Which food, Andrew? Which food? Is it the food that’d lain cold on the dining table for hours? Or the one Cecilia had to put away the morning before? Which food? If I give you a spoon now can you find your mouth?’
Andrew pulled out his lower lip, childishly. ‘This is my mouth, bring the food.’
‘You are just an ingrate, Andrew. A pathetic, unrepentant ingrate! Whatever did I do to deserve this?’
Andrew stared at her without any bit of comprehension, as if he knew neither of the words that had just exploded out of his wife’s lips a moment ago. Despite having studied in the UK and stayed there for years.
Grasping the arm of the couch, he staggered to his feet. ‘Out of my way!’
He made a show of pushing Eunice aside but failed. As if led by opportunity, she mounted herself rigidly in his front. ‘You are not going anywhere, Andrew. We need to talk.’
‘Talk about what? Eh—what about? Get me food, no, what else should a woman be talking about to her husband? Eh what?’
‘Your drinking, Andrew, this sudden, terrible transformation, this newly-found irresponsibility!’
‘Get out of my way!’
‘No! You are not going anywhere, not till you tell me where you are coming from!’
Eunice had barely completed the words when Andrew’s palm met her face with tremendous force. She fell to the couch with a muffled groan. ‘Get out of my way!’
He drew in a noisy breath. ‘If you really want to know where I was coming from then you don’t stand in my way. In a man’s way…no! Never. You don’t do that!’
He gave a rather mysterious giggle. ‘Women. They are meant to cook, clean, and yes … make babies.’ He began to smile, his eyes growing misty with a new emotion. ‘Cute little babies!’
His face changed suddenly again. ‘But no, you won’t do any of those. You will rather mount your big, childless self in my front, asking stupid questions.’
He moved a finger clumsily through the air in demonstration. ‘Don’t you know Patrick? His first son is six already. Six.’ Another show of demonstration. ‘Six! He was my junior in school, you know. Poor little bastard, catches up with me in everything…Graduation, NYSC, now marriage and kids—all because of you! And you dare stand in my way? You—you—’ His voice was breaking. He abandoned the speech and staggered into the house.
Eunice’s right palm was on her slapped cheek as she watched her husband totter to his room. A line of tear ran down her cheek and she quietly stroked it off.
Downstairs, Grace knocked gently on Cecilia’s door. It took a while before she opened and another while of staring and frowning before she said, ‘What? Is the food not enough for you?’
‘No, I’m full, thanks.’
‘I heard noises upstairs, could it be that—’ Grace had to pull back to avoid Cecilia from slamming the door against her.
That night as she lay quietly on the bed, she prayed that the tension in the house did not suddenly metamorphose into flames and raze down the whole building.
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