Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 The Cousin from Abroad

 

 

 

 

 

 

I

As Onuora followed the driver into his uncle’s imposing house, he was aware of a tight feeling across his chest. The house, surrounded by a high wall, was in grave-like silence, gloomy and brooding. The atmosphere was in perfect blend with the driver’s stiff manner. Although Onuora had pumped him on the journey from Umuahia, he could not say more than what he had already told him when he appeared at his office that morning: his uncle was critically ill and wanted to see him at once. As he had not been on speaking terms with his uncle for three years, he could not imagine what the man wanted to see him about. He had a morbid feeling that he was already dead and the family only wanted him, as the closest male relative, to be present to discuss his burial. It was a practice common among his people not to break news of a death to a person until he had been gently brought to the scene of the death.

Onuora began to breathe easier when they entered the living room and he saw it was empty. It could not be a death then, or the room would be swirling with early sympathisers eager to register their condolences. The driver pointed to a chair for him and then disappeared into one of the rooms to inform his aunt of his arrival. The room looked neglected and unkempt with a thin mist of dust on the furniture and cobwebs in the corners, as if it had not been used in a long time. He wiped a small portion of the chair nearest to him with his bare hand and perched on it. He heard a movement at the kitchen door and he turned. A large black cat stood in the doorway, watching him. Onuora’s first reaction was surprise. His uncle never liked pets—he said they carried diseases—and had banned them from being brought into the house. Onuora nursed his own private fear of cats. He was terrified by the story, so common here, that witches assumed the form of cats to perpetrate their evil. And indeed there was something uncannily human about the look in the cat’s eyes, as if it could read his mind. To his anger he realized that he had crossed and uncrossed his legs, a habit he resorted to when nervous.

The driver returned to the room. The cat slipped over to him and rubbed itself against his leg, purring.

“The servant says madam is not at home,” he said. “She has gone with Adaeze to see the priest.”

“Adaeze?” Onuora echoed with surprise. “Is Adaeze in Nigeria then?”

“Didn’t you know? She has been in Nigeria for nearly a month now. It is she that is treating oga.”

“I didn’t know. What about oga, can I see him now?”            

“Let me talk to the nurse looking after him to find out if you can see him,” and he left the room again, the cat following him.

Adaeze in Nigeria! Onuora’s heartbeat quickened. He recalled the flippant, vivacious cousin of his, two years his junior, about whom people had teased him, calling her his wife despite their relationship, and he smiled to himself.  Indeed, at one time they had been very close to each other to warrant that jibe. An orphaned relative in a household where the parents fretted about their inability to have a male child, Onuora had been made, from the very beginning, to feel acutely aware of the awkwardness of his presence in that home. His aunt regarded him with suspicion and as a subtle threat to the hereditary rights of her two daughters; his uncle treated him as a burden that had been foisted upon him which he would not be sorry to be rid of; his younger cousin Uju looked upon him as one would a boil in a delicate part of the body—unpleasant but inoperable because of the delicateness of its position. Adaeze alone accepted him with warmth and wholeheartedness. And as if to put him at his ease, she took him everywhere she went and introduced him as her elder brother. She had a warm personality that drew people around her like sugar to ants. Uju was the direct opposite—reserved and aloof. She hardly had any friends since she never went out of her room where she locked herself after school, reading. Adaeze said that she did this to please their father. And there might be some truth in this for his uncle showed a marked partiality for Uju. On her completion of secondary school, he had sent her to London to study pharmacy in preference to Adaeze despite the fact that the latter had produced equally good results. Onuora and Adaeze proceeded to the University of Nigeria at Enugu to study law and medicine respectively. Then Adaeze had left in the second year to join Uju in London after being expelled for slapping one of her lecturers. Onuora heard that she had qualified as a doctor since, married with three children. I wonder what she looks like after all these years, he thought with excitement.

Then suddenly a shadow passed over his thoughts and his sweet reminiscences turned to sorrow. He recalled his estrangement from Adaeze’s father and frowned. Was it possible that Adaeze would take sides against her own father in the matter and still feel the way she used to towards him?  Onuora doubted this. Before his quarrel with her father, Adaeze used to call him regularly on the phone. But she had not called him since, not even when she arrived in the country. What was the meaning of that if not a clear sign that she did not wish to have anything further to do with him?

He thought about this and then suddenly he wanted to get away from the house to avoid meeting Adaeze. But it was already too late. He heard the driver returning to the living room. Behind him was a young woman in a nursing uniform. She smiled at him.

“Good afternoon, sir,” she greeted him. “It is Onuora, I believe?”

“Yes.”

“I am afraid you will not be able to speak with Chief now. He has had a slight relapse, as it were.”

“What do you mean?”

“From your question, I believe you have not seen him since his illness?”

“No.”

“I thought as much. Follow me.”

Down a short passage to a room at the end, she opened the door and they entered. The room was large and vacant but for a massive sculpted bed on which the sick man lay. A wheelchair stood on the right side of the bed and, on the other, a table overlaid with an odd collection of medicine bottles and drug tablets. The French window, overlooking a garden of cashew and guava, was open and it was through this window that fresh air, tinged with the smell of ripe fruit, entered the room. But beneath this smell, Onuora became sharply aware of something nauseous—the stale smell of disinfectant and of disease. His stomach gave a violent lurch.

The sick man lay perfectly motionless on his back, his eyes on the ceiling. His chest rose and fell with frightful effort. Drawing closer, Onuora caught his breath sharply at the sight of the face that met his eyes. It was not the face of a human being—it was an apparition of death, the skin tightly stretched over the cheekbones. The eyes, sunken in the sockets, seemed to glow with some strange light. A sudden fright seized Onuora.

“Uncle …” he whispered.

“He cannot hear you,” the nurse said, “he is in a kind of coma. It may take a while before he comes out of it.”

“For how long has he been in this state?”

“This afternoon. It usually passes off after some hours.”

His eyes lingered on the wasted body. Suddenly he saw that body as he remembered it three years ago, burly with a broad face that knotted in a frightening grimace whenever he was angry. Onuora recalled how terrible that face had looked on that fateful day when he had come home with Nkechi to inform his uncle of his desire to marry her. At first he had looked amused as though he were prepared to consider it a joke, even if in bad taste. Then Onuora started to explain that Nkechi was carrying his baby, and then the dam broke. His uncle raged for a full half hour, waving his large hands like saucers. When Onuora refused to back down on his decision to marry Nkechi, his uncle’s voice turned deathly cold as he said, “There is the door for you then. I cannot continue training a man who is both a rascal and a fool.” Onuora had left that day and never came back—until today.

Looking at the man now, he shuddered, wondering what had reduced that fierce body to this ghastly shadow of a human being. A lump caught in his throat and when he spoke again his voice came out as a hoarse croak. 

“What exactly is the matter with him?”

“No doctor can say. He is paralysed from the waist down to the legs but it is not a stroke, at least that’s what the doctors say. He talks well and eats well. Sometimes he looks quite strong; at other times, such as now, he looks no better than a corpse. In my six years’ experience as a nurse, I have never seen a condition like this before,” she concluded with a shake of the head.

A car drove into the compound.

“That must be madam.”

Onuora followed the nurse back to the living room and met Adaeze and her mother entering from outside.

“Onuora,” his aunt said dryly in answer to his greeting. “You are here then.”

“Yes.”

“Ah, Onuora my dissident brother,” Adaeze said, stepping forward with a smile. “What a pleasure it is to see you again.”

She wore a simple black dress that clung to her slender body in an oppressive embrace. Looking at her, Onuora could hardly believe that eight years had passed since he saw her last—little had changed in her appearance. She looked not an inch like a woman who had given birth to three children. But when he looked into her eyes, his heart sank. There was a blankness in them that belied the wide smile on her face, as if the smile had been lifted off a more jovial person and grafted onto her face. The arms he was about to spread for a hug froze by his sides. They merely stared at each other.

“Adaeze,” he said finally, “I didn’t know you were in Nigeria.”

“I came a few weeks ago when my father’s condition became worse.”

“And your children—did you come with them?”

“To attend to a sick man?” Her laughter rippled through the room like a piano note. “Of course not. They are in London with my sister, Uju, to get education,” and she laughed again as if it was the greatest joke of the decade. Her eyes rested a brief moment on him. He looked down in shame, his hand going instinctively to the frazzled collar of his shirt. “How are you, anyway?”

“As you can see, I am fine,” he said, irritated at the patronising note in her voice. This was not the Adaeze he had known. The subtle irony in her tone and her affected gestures were strange to him. But then he should have known.

“I am glad to hear that, my brother. And I am glad you are here after all. I was afraid you might not come. I believe you have seen my father?”

“Just now.”

“Isn’t it a terrible affair?” she asked in a tone that was not actually looking for an answer. She waved grandly towards the inner room. “Anyway, I will just take a look at him. I will be with you in a moment. Excuse me.”

With the nurse Adaeze went in the direction from which Onuora had emerged a moment ago.

“She has been so wonderful since she arrived,” her mother said admiringly, setting her bulk down in an armchair. “Better than the other doctors we consulted.” She glanced at him and turned away. “Your uncle has had you on his lips for a week, Onuora, saying he wants to see you. About what, I have no idea. But no day passes without him asking about you. No one knew how to locate you. We made some enquiries and discovered that you worked for a transport company in Umuahia. And so we sent the driver early this morning to fetch you. Unfortunately, he has slipped into one of his comas which sometimes last a day. I hope you are not in too much of a hurry to return to Umuahia?”

“Not really,” Onuora answered. “I can call work and explain. I think they can manage without me for a couple of days.”

She hesitated. “And your … wife?”

“I will call her also.”

“Well then it is settled. You can go up to your former room and rest. We will let you know when dinner is served.”

Taking up his plastic bag, he made for the staircase, aware that the woman’s eyes were on him.

 

II

 

“He is a dying man,” Onuora said into his mobile phone. He was looking out the window at the garden. The shadows of the trees were beginning to lengthen. His room was directly above the room in which his uncle lay. In a flash he saw the deathly face again, staring unblinkingly at the ceiling. “You need to see him, Nkechi. He is hardly the shadow of his former self. He is simply a living corpse preserved by God-knows-what.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” Nkechi said. He could imagine her eyes filming with tears. She had once been beautiful but poverty and constant worry about her inability to conceive after that first time had worn her out. Now her beauty came only at rare moments of intense happiness and soon disappeared. She was merely twenty-seven, five years younger than he actually but, like him, she looked eight years older than her age.

“So when are you coming home?”

“I cannot say for now. It depends on when I am able to meet him. But I will call you in the morning to let you know what happens.”

He remained at the window long after the call, looking out. The garden was overrun by giant elephant grass, some as tall as the guava and cashew trees, as if the grass had not been cut in a long time. Fleetingly, he wondered what had happened to the gardener, Okon, who had first taught him as a boy how to use the garden tools. Maybe he had been sacked, like the rest of the domestic servants, by his aunt since his uncle’s illness. The woman had always been niggardly with money. Now that she controlled everything, Onuora was sure she would sooner see the house go to ruin than spend a kobo that she was not literally compelled to spend.

A little brown bird lit on a coconut tree adjacent to the window. From his position he could almost stretch his hand and pluck it off as though it were a fruit. The bird gave him a defiant look as if it could read his mind. Then it fluttered its wings, chirped, fluttered again and flew off. A mild breeze arose. The fronds of the coconut tree which were level with his window lapped gently against the glass.

He did not know how long he stood at the window. His mind sizzled with confused thoughts like a wasp trapped in a bottle. Now it would wander over to his uncle, half-dead downstairs and he would shudder with horror. Then it would meander to Adaeze and their strange encounter in the afternoon. Then, without any connection whatsoever, it would bring his wife Nkechi into focus, alone in the tiny room they occupied in Umuahia.

The sound of a car entering the compound thrust him back to the present. Glancing to his right towards the gate, he saw a white Mercedes Benz pulling to a stop in the courtyard. A priest emerged from the car and was received into the house by his aunt. Onuora sighed. How many times had he witnessed such sights—of a priest going to the homes of the sick to pray and anoint them with sacred oil? At such a sight, you knew at once that what would follow a month or so afterwards was a funeral, for people who were anointed at home with oil were rarely ever seen in the church again.     

Onuora had been raised in strict Catholic traditions, his uncle being a proud knight of the order of St. John. When he was young, he was often overcome by the solemnity of the Catholic religious ceremonies. The Mass, with its incense and Latin chants, often transported him to such heights of spiritual ecstasy that his eyes watered with tears. But during the period that he had suffered most in his life, his faith had been cracked by many unanswered questions. He recalled a place in the Bible where Jesus Christ made a claim that he came into the world that man might have life and have it in abundance. He could not understand this statement, seeing pain, sickness and suffering everywhere he turned. First, there had been his dead little child who had been born with stumps for fingers and a hole in his heart. From the moment he was born, it was plain that he was not going to survive. Still he had gone on to live for nearly a year. And then, when it began to look as if he might defy medical science and nature, he had died—finally died. His death came as no surprise to anyone but it was no less painful. And now his uncle. He was not more than sixty but his life was already wasted, poured away like a libation to some cruel god that delighted in the blood of its worshippers. If God loves us so much, Onuora reflected—and it is said He can do anything—why doesn’t He give us only the burdens that we can bear?

The priest came out after about forty-five minutes, accompanied by his aunt. He entered his car and drove away. Shortly after, there was a knock at his door. Adaeze craned her neck round the door and, seeing him, gave a pale smile.

“Hi there, my dissident brother,” she said. She entered the room, carrying the cat in her arms, and closed the door behind her. The room filled with her musky perfume.

“I see you now bring a cat into the house,” he said with veiled sarcasm. “Rather a break with the past.”

She laughed and set the cat on the bed, much to Onuora’s disgust.

“I got her in Lagos on my way back,” she said. “She has been a very wonderful companion—that cat. But I keep her away from Dad’s room, though.”

The cat gave him another funny look and then it made for the open window, sprang smartly on the sill and disappeared.

“Isn't she a beautiful lady?” Adaeze asked, eyes shining with humour. “If she were human, she would be a princess for all her grace.”

He shrugged. He found it odd talking about a cat in such language and he prayed she would stop.

“How is Uncle at the moment?” he asked before she could think up another encomium to shower on the cat.

“He has come out of the coma, thank God,” she said. “But he is still unstable and not able to speak yet. The priest prayed for him and gave him the Holy Communion.” She appeared to think. “I am not certain but I think it worked some charm on him.”             

Onuora did not speak for a while, then, “You are a doctor, Adaeze. What do you find is the matter with him?”

“To answer your question quite frankly, I cannot say—really. At first I thought it was Alzheimer’s disease but all the tests conducted so far prove otherwise. I am almost inclined to believe what the villagers say.”

“What do the villagers say?”

She sighed. “My mother says they attribute the illness to witchcraft.”         

He gave a nervous chuckle.

“It is the fashion to attribute any illness that cannot be cured to witchcraft.” 

“I know and would certainly not have thought of repeating it, only I don’t know what to think anymore. That he will die there is little doubt, but why this agony? Why this miserable existence? I have asked myself this question over and over again. Sometimes I am almost tempted to give him a lethal injection to get it over with.”   

“Tufia!” he swore. “Don’t say that again, Ada.”

“Of course, I don’t mean it,” she laughed and became serious again. “But it rends my heart to watch him in this state.”

“You never can tell,” he said by way of consolation. “Miracles can occur. He might still recover from this illness.”

“Of course you saw him for the first time this afternoon so how can you be expected to know any better?”

He fell silent. The accusation in her tone stung him cruelly.

They stood side by side at the window.

“Enugu looks different from a distance,” she said, looking far into the city. “Almost beautiful.”

“Enugu is a beautiful city if one does not compare it with cities like London and New York.”

“Even London and New York have their ugly parts,” she replied, ignoring his sarcasm. “No city is without a blemish of its own.”

He said nothing. Standing so close to her, he wondered how he could have imagined that she looked as young as she was eight years before. He saw now that he had been deceived by her makeup which hid her incipient wrinkles as artfully as paint might hide cracks in a wall. Between her eyebrows were two grooves which became more pronounced when she frowned. And her mouth hung at a loose, dissipated angle. He looked away in embarrassment.

“I heard what happened between you and my father,” she said after a while, searching his face.

“I know you did, or I would not have got that beautiful epithet from you.”

She stared at him for a moment and then began to laugh.

“I guess you think you are smart. Maybe you are, I don’t know. But was it not rather dense of you to abandon your education for the sake of a woman?”

“I don’t know what you mean by dense. I did what I believed in my heart to be the right thing under the circumstances. I suppose you heard the ‘woman’ in question was pregnant by me?”

“So?”

“So there was never a question whether I would marry her or not. And you know what, it has turned out to be the best decision I ever took in my life.” He allowed himself a smile. “My wife is an angel—and I don’t say that to flatter myself. I wish you could meet her. Except that you have already formed your own opinion based on hearsay, or you would have called to hear my own side of the story.”

Adaeze sighed. She looked suddenly weary.

“I did not judge you—I never judge people. I always meant to call you but I was going through some difficulties of my own. Life over there can sometimes get too demanding, too hectic that one is apt to forget. But believe me, you have always been uppermost in my mind.”

He fell silent. He wondered how she could not have remembered the adventures they had together growing up and feel obliged to call him. He himself often thought about his time with her—how they used to sneak away in the dead of the night to go clubbing or steal away from school to roam the streets of Enugu in pursuit of fun. He wondered if she ever recalled the night they had come back from a nightclub, supremely drunk, and had thrown up in the living room before passing out. They were discovered by her parents in the morning, still sleeping, and the mystery of why they usually slept into Saturday afternoons was explained. His uncle had threatened to send Adaeze to a convent school and him to a boarding school. However, he was forced to change his mind when Adaeze threatened in turn to run away from home. But that was the end of their night adventures as her parents took turns to drop in on them at night.

How could she not remember any of these? He glanced at her. She was already a stranger to him. It was difficult to believe that they had ever been close to each other—so close that at one point her mother had begun to look on them with some suspicion. What has time done to us? he thought sadly. Perhaps it was true what they said—nothing was ever the same when one returned to it.

They stood silent for a while. In the distance, light had come on the city and in truth it looked beautiful from here. The darkness hid the decay he had noticed in most of the buildings, bathed in red brown dust, when he arrived. Now it was once more the city he had loved as a child and, while absent from it, had often thought about with such passionate longing. Adaeze muttered something under her breath.

“What?”

“I said what wouldn’t I give to be young again,” she said with deep feeling.

Onuora tugged reflectively at the black speck that stood for a moustache on his face.    

“I am not so sure about that,” he said. “It is not given to us to be young forever. Sometimes I think youth is too sweet, too deceptive; one never thinks about the responsibility and reality that lie ahead. And suddenly youth is over; suddenly we are masters of our own fate; suddenly we are confronted with the harsh realities of life. It is really sad when you think of it.”

“You seem to take a bleak view of things,” Adaeze said, but he noticed her eyes shift uncertainly. “You know we had a lot of fun growing up.”

And after that, what? he thought sourly. There you are, a London-trained medical doctor, and here I am, a nobody whom you would not even raise the phone to call despite “the fun we had growing up.”  It was the end that mattered, not the beginning. And in that he was deficient.

They stood at the window chatting desultorily until the servant came at eight and announced dinner. It consisted of egusi soup and pounded yam. The soup was prepared in the traditional way with plenty of dry fish and stockfish and ogili, a local spice that gave it a heady aroma that filled the dining room. The mood at the table was relaxed, an improvement on the strained atmosphere of Onuora’s first meeting with Adaeze and her mother. Even though he spoke very little, he listened with interest to the gay chatter of the women. It seemed to him that his aunt was more boisterous than he remembered her and he attributed this to Adaeze’s presence. But there was a forced quality to their gaiety; it was as if they had to keep up the appearance in order to present the image of a happy family despite the ill-health of the man of the house.

Soon after dinner, he said goodnight and retired.

He woke up at midnight with a start. Something had jolted him awake. He could not tell what it was. Maybe that bloody cat had been at his door. That cat with the look in its eyes. He stared at the ceiling, wondering how he could allow himself to get so worked up over a mere cat. Or maybe the cat had nothing to do with it. He had been feeling kind of queer since he arrived, like a person visiting distant relations for the first time. The curtain on his front window which opened onto the balcony was parted and by turning his head to that side, he could see a wide portion of the night sky dotted with beautiful patterns of stars. He had heard somewhere as a child that stars were the spirits of the dead watching over their loved ones. As he watched the stars, some bright and others pale, he wondered which of those little dots of light was his father and which his mother…and he shuddered. How strange it was, what the night did to the human mind. In the eerie calm of the night, trivialities tended to assume gravest importance while matters of life and death paled into insignificance.    

Suddenly he heard the noise again, definite this time, in the adjoining room which Adaeze occupied. A door creaked open. In a moment, a figure slid across his view and stood on the balcony. He sat up in bed. Recognizing who it was, he made as if to get out of bed and perhaps join her on the balcony but then he stopped. There was something about Adaeze’s manner that told him this was a private moment which she would not want to share with anyone. He saw her throw a furtive look at his window, and then she faced the entrance of the compound as though she were expecting a visitor. What she saw, or thought, as she stood there alone in the dark he could not imagine. She remained there for a long time, rubbing her left shoulder reflectively. The wind arose and ballooned her nightdress around her. She did not move, not even when the wind became more violent and tossed her hair about. Watching her, Onuora thought how beautiful she looked standing there in the windy night.

Black clouds rolled across the sky, killing off the stars one after the other. The night blazed up with short intermittent flashes of lightning and shook under the deep rumbles of thunder. On the other side of the room, the coconut fronds slapped the windowpane with unforgiving brutality.

But Adaeze stood her ground.

The rain, when it came, was a seizure. It fell and stopped—the thunder punctuated—it fell again and stopped. As if brought back to reality, Adaeze gathered her nightdress around her and ran into the house. Onuora breathed a sigh of relief. Leaving his bed, he drew the curtains on both windows. As he returned to bed, he heard beneath the storm the unmistakable sound of one crying in the next room.

 

III

 

Next morning broke a reluctant day. The sun sulked behind the clouds. In the air were fragments of moisture from the night rain. The house was even gloomier than Onuora met it yesterday. The silence was broken only by the chattering of a flock of weaverbirds which had settled on the garden that morning. Breakfast was passed with only scattered monosyllables. For some reason, Onuora longed for the endless babble of last night.

Midmorning, the sun finally made an appearance. With it the mood of the household began to lift, especially that of Adaeze. Onuora found her a subject of wonder. Her mood seemed to be strangely tied to the activities of the sun, for as the day wore on and the sun intensified so did her mood continue to swell until, towards midday, it seemed to culminate in such an explosion of gaiety that it became difficult to tell which was brighter, the sun or Adaeze’s smile. Watching her, Onuora found it hard to credit what he had seen and heard last night; he concluded that maybe he had dreamt it up.  

The priest arrived after breakfast. The next hour was spent in prayers and burning of incense in the sick man’s room. He looked much better than yesterday. He could even sit up, propped with pillows, on the bed. And he spoke with an almost steady voice. The change in him was miraculous.

When the priest left with his aunt, the sick man called Onuora to the bedside and indicated a chair for him. Onuora pulled the chair nearer to the bed and sat down. The nurse discreetly withdrew. They were left alone.

“Onuora,” his uncle began, weakly.

“Uncle?”

“Thank God you are here at last. I know I am going to die soon…”

“You are not going to die, uncle.”

“Nonsense,” he said with something of his former self in his voice. “I already feel it descending on me. But it is not of death that I am afraid but of what may become of my family name when I am gone. You know God did not bless me with a male child. You are the only male survivor of my brother and me. Women are women and they will marry and bear their husbands’ names—that has already happened in my lifetime. You are the only one left to carry on the family name.” He broke off as if to catch his breath. He closed his eyes and remained like that for a long moment. His chest heaved frightfully.

“Uncle?”

“I am all right,” he said, opening his eyes again. “How is your wife, by the way?”

“She is all right. She sent her regards.”

“I heard that the baby died.”

“Yes, after some months.”

“And have you had another since then?”

“No.”

“Why?”

Onuora hesitated. “We have had some difficulty in conception since that first time.”

The sick man’s face twisted in an expression that Onuora could not understand but assumed to be a smile.

“Since you have refused to go to school, I want you to come back to Enugu and manage my ceramics factory. I cannot have a relation like you and allow strangers to reap the fruits of my labour. That’s why I have called you here. Think about it and give me your answer.” He closed his eyes again.

“I will take the offer, sir.”

“Good. But you must start as soon as possible. I know you did not come prepared for it so you may take a week to return to Umuahia and put things in order. Then you must come back and start immediately before those people ruin the company.”

Onuora left the room a happy man. He wanted to call Nkechi at once to break the happy news to her. So he made straight for his room where he had plugged his phone to charge. He passed Adaeze’s door, and then stopped. Turning, he gave a light tap on the door and pushed it open.

Then he froze in the doorway. A cold sensation washed over his entire body. 

In the middle of the room stood Adaeze, a hypodermic syringe in her hand. A thin rubber tube was tied around her left upper arm and, at the point that Onuora entered the room, she was about to push the needle into her vein. It was her reaction rather than the act in itself that flattened his heart against his chest.

 

IV

 

Time passed. In the next room he could hear Osadebe singing ezi ogoli on his phone—the ring tone with which he had saved his wife’s phone number—but he did not move.

After what seemed like a millennium, he said softly, “I don’t understand, Ada. How…why?”

“Oh, God!” she sobbed. “I am miserable—miserable! God knows I have tried to quit but it is no good. I have had treatments but it is no good. Oh, God! I could kill myself!”

“But how did you get involved in the first place?—how?”

She made no reply. She was kneeling at the bed in the attitude of prayer, her face in her hands. Not once did she raise her face even though he tried several times to speak to her. An almost imperceptible tremor coursed up and down her back. The syringe lay where it had fallen on the soft maroon carpet.

Time passed. Unable to make her speak, he went to the window as if to create a distance between the two of them and stood there watching her. His hands were shaking uncontrollably and he felt an emptiness in his stomach. He could not understand his feelings. He was at once confused and agitated, embarrassed and irritated. Suddenly he felt a monstrous feeling of disgust wash over him and he wanted to leave the room with its shame-broken occupant. But his legs refused to obey him.

The sun was beginning to wane. He recalled that in Umuahia it would have dropped over the roof of the house next to his room, distilling in the room a sort of soporific warmth that formed part of the little joys he took free from life.  He glanced at Adaeze. She remained in the same position but she was no longer crying. As he moved from the window towards her, she abruptly rose to her feet and went into the adjoining bathroom and he heard water running. After about five minutes she returned to the room. Her face was washed clean (but for her puffy eyes one would not have noticed that she had been crying) and her hair was combed neatly. Her voice, when she spoke, was surprisingly steady.

“Onnie, please sit down.”

He perched on the bed.

“I know you must be thinking about what you saw and you probably feel contempt for me. But”— she gave a wry smile—“I doubt if anyone can despise me as much as I despise myself.”

“Ada, please…”

“I have no excuses to make for myself. My life has been such a run of frustrations that the only way by which to relieve the pain was—well, what you saw.”

“Frustrations—you? I don’t understand.”

“Would it help you to understand if I told you that I had no right in fact to the title ‘doctor’ in my name?”

He stared stupidly at her.

“You are not a medical doctor?”

She shook her head.

“I cannot believe this. What happened?”

“I crashed out of the medical school in my fourth year after failing the exams three times.” Her voice was scarcely above a whisper. “That was what happened.”

She paused as if to allow him time to absorb the shock. Then she told him how she had got involved with a man from Nigeria who was also in the medical school with her. On leaving the school, she realized that she was carrying the man’s baby. Emma—that was the man’s name—said he was not ready to marry yet. He came from a poor home, he told Adaeze, and his family would expect him to work for two years at least before thinking about marriage. Adaeze was ready to wait for two years; what choice did she have anyway? With the money she had saved, she got a bigger apartment and they moved in together. She lied to her parents that they were married, and her father sent her a large sum of money as a sort of dowry. Adaeze realised that she could remain in London and find something else to do and no one would ever find out the truth about her life. With the money, she set up a beauty salon in London. It was a big place with about ten people working for her. After the first baby, two more came—another girl and a boy. Then Emma finished his studies and qualified as a doctor. One day he told Adaeze that he was travelling to Nigeria and that while here, he would meet her parents and do proper marriage introductions so that as soon as he returned to London they would solemnize their union. That was the last time Adaeze set eyes on him.

She suddenly stopped as if to collect her thoughts. Onuora felt the walls of the room crowding around him. For the second time that evening, the impulse to run away from the room seized him.

“So I was left with three children and no husband,” she resumed. “I made frantic efforts to contact Emma but to no avail. I learnt that everything he had told me about himself was all lies, that he was not really Igbo (though he spoke the language fluently) but Yoruba. I was in agony; the shame was more than I could bear. And then one night I followed a friend to a nightclub and there she introduced me to a man from Jamaica who helped me through my problems—or so I thought.”

“Well?”

She gave a sickly smile.

“You must understand that at this point I was so depressed that I often contemplated suicide, and I would have done it too but for my children. So when my Jamaican friend gave me a tonic that brought back some spark into my life it was like an answer to all my trouble. But how long could pleasure so cheaply bought last? Not long, as I soon realized. In time, I became so far gone that I could not possibly return even if I had the will to do so. One night Uju, who lives in another part of UK with her husband, had to be informed after I was rushed to the hospital with an overdose. She came with her husband, took away my children and put me in a rehab facility to get help. I was there for about six months and came out only three months ago.” Her voice broke. “But it was no good. I simply can’t cope without a fix now and then. I guess I am beyond saving.”

“You should have made an effort to stop,” he said, hoping his tone did not betray the contempt he felt. “There is nothing that cannot be overcome by willpower.”

“Willpower,” she murmured. “It is fine of you to talk about willpower, Onnie. After all, what do you know about it? Do you know what it feels like to wake up in the middle of the night and hear voices screaming in your head and know it is the phantoms of your miserable life that have come to mock you? Do you know what it feels like to live a life whose meaning consists only in giving and never taking? — a life with neither purpose nor drive?—a life clothed in falsity?…”

She broke into fresh tears. Night had since fallen and, when she stopped talking, silence stepped out of the night and dominated the room. The muffled noise of her quiet crying seemed trebly amplified. It was as if the house had been deserted but for the two of them. On the wall hung a large portrait of Adaeze, in a doctor’s smock, a stethoscope around her neck. As Onuora looked at the picture, the meaning of her last words dripped into him with something of shame.

“But you don’t have to live a life of falsity,” he said. “It is because you put too much expectation on yourself that you suffer so.”

“How can you avoid it when your life has been mapped out from infancy to old age, every little detail carefully planned—your education, your marriage and even the number of children you are to have? How can you turn around then to tell your parents that you are not able to accomplish any of those lofty dreams, that your interests lie elsewhere, especially when your younger sister goes on to accomplish exactly the same goals? You saw what happened to you when you defied my father.”

“My own case was different,” he mumbled.

“How different? You imagine any less was expected of you because you were not the biological child of the family? I don’t think so, my friend. You should have heard the words my father used to describe you when you rebelled against him.” She shrugged. “Anyway, you are lucky to be out of it now. Nothing is better than a life lived for oneself and oneself alone.”

Onuora left the house the next morning. Adaeze, her eyes dulled by the harsh morning sun, stood at the gate, the cat in her arms, waving at him as the driver took him to the motor park.  As the car turned a corner in the street, he sank back in the seat with a sigh. He had not said anything to the family but he already knew that he was not coming back. He did not think he could bear once again the pressure of trying to live up to his uncle’s expectations. He recalled his quiet life with his wife, her gentle reassurances and shook his head. He was not making a million but then the little he made brought them contentment.

 

 

 

 

Okechukwu Otukwu is a fiction writer from Nigeria whose stories have appeared in Down in the Dirt and the Timber Creek Review. He is also a graduate in Law of the University of Calabar, Nigeria, and is currently working on his first novel.