I am going to tell you a story. You might decide to believe it or not; it is up to you. Some stories sound incredible when told, but this world we live in is wide and also small; things have happened in distant lands that will make you find sleep like a lost coin. Things have happened in this country, in this town, that will make you lock your doors and never want to step out again. My dear friend, this world is a cruel place but it also beautiful. I have tasted of its beauty and I bear the scars of its cruelty. Do you want more wine? Are you cold? I can get you a blanket for your feet, if you want. The harmattan season here is usually as chilly as the winter season in the West. You are comfortable? Good.
How do I start my tale? There are so many places to start from… hmmm… I think I will start from when things began to change. When I woke up that morning, about thirty-five years ago, I was a princess, I was a star; I was young and I was foolish.
Papa had owned a chemist… no two or three, I think; I never got to find out but I know he was doing very well for himself. He never took me to his shop but I heard him and Mama talk about it. Papa was the eldest of five children and it fell to him to cater for them and their families, as well as us. He had not gone to school but had learnt the chemist business as a carpenter or a tailor learns the trade. His master was Mama’s father, a wealthy businessman. Mama’s father had not been happy that she had married my father and he had shown his displeasure by refusing to settle Papa after his years of service. Undeterred, my parents had gone on to build a prosperous business.
I woke up and said my prayers that morning, which was the norm in my house. That day though, my prayers were unfocused; I could hear voices coming from the sitting room and I was curious to find out why people filled our house so early in the morning. Making the sign of the cross hastily, I rushed to my door, twisted the handle and opened the door slowly, making sure the door made no sound. This skill has been perfected as a result of my eagerness to watch late night movies, which Papa had banned me from watching. He had said I was too young to stay up late. Well he didn’t know that while he and Mama snored on the chairs in the sitting room, I was usually under the same chairs, absorbed in the television screen.
I stepped into the corridor and glanced to my left. My parents’ room was closed. I smiled and tiptoed to the entrance into the sitting room. I grabbed the curtain that blocked my view and twitched it aside, like a breeze. The curtain shivered and a small gap let me see into the room. It was filled with people; neighbours, family members, strangers and our parish priest. I stared with wide eyes which opened further when I saw Mama on the rug, crying.
I could not understand what was being said but I knew something was wrong. A wicked breeze blew at the curtain and the gap closed. I frowned in frustration and twitched the curtain again. I could hear the words; ‘it is well.’, ‘God knows why… sister don’t cry… he is in a better place… Na wa o, just like that? E no sick o… this world…’ I could hear Mama mutter a reply but her tears muffled the words. I was curious; “who is in a better place?” I wondered, my thoughts treading different paths, trying to solve the puzzle.
Light suddenly pierced the artificial gloom made by the closed window curtains. I forgot my investigative attempts and peered into the room, to see my Uncle Maximus walk in with his wife, Aunty Ebube. I did not like him. Mama did not like him. I am not so sure Papa did either; he probably bore his presence because he was his brother. He always looked at Mama like the way the cat, Tom looked at Jerry, the mouse, anytime he came to the house and he is always asking for money. One time, father gave him my school fees; Mama was so angry and they quarreled after he left. They never quarrel. That was the first time I heard them exchange words. I don’t like people that will make them quarrel. It meant I couldn’t sleep and therefore had to woke up late. It meant I was flogged by the head master at school the next day for getting to school late. No, I did not like the man.
Maximus: “I greet you all.” He said, walking to the centre of the room.
Aunty Ebube trailed behind him silent. She was beautiful; very fair skin, long hair and very tall. She does not talk, as long as Uncle Maximus is there but the few times she came alone, she talked and cried too. Aunty Ebube is always crying about my uncle. She usually gave me sweets whenever they came to our home. I heard Papa and Mama talking about them one night. Mama said that Uncle Maximus beats her and cheats on her anytime he gets the chance. Papa said that it was because she is Ibo; any Itsekiri woman won’t allow it. Mama had replied that it is not that; she had insisted that it is because he is a man and a brute at that. Men are all cheats, she had said. Papa had not replied her. I later heard the front door bang as he stepped out. I didn’t go to her but I heard Mama in her room crying until he returned. When their bed started creaking in a rhythm I had come to know, I closed my eyes and went to sleep smiling; everything would be fine.
The memory fled my mind as I gazed at my uncle shaking hands with the men around the room, and staring into the cleavages of the women as he slowly walked his way to where Mama sat. He stared at her for some time, then he squatted in front of her.
Maximus: “I am sorry, Matilda. I know how you feel, I can’t imagine life without Ebube. I want you to know that I will do everything in my power to make sure, you never cry again. It is alright, I am here now, I will take care of everything.” He said.
I could not see his face or Mama’s own but I heard her sobs increase and I saw her hands surround his waist. I frowned; Papa does not like Mama sitting near men and she was hugging him… “She better Pray papa does not come to find them together like that.” I thought to myself as I gazed at the scene.
Uncle Maximus stood up and turned to the people gathered in the sitting room. He adjusted his French suit which was wrinkled and had a wet patch in the front. Mama’s tears had wet the suit but he seemed unconcerned. He cleared his throat;
Maximus: “my brother Georgie is dead. I cannot bring him back and my tears cannot bring him back. He has left a family behind and financial responsibilities which needs to be attended to.” He paused and licked his lips. His eyes darted about the room as if looking for any sign of opposition. Satisfied, he continued; “Matilda and her daughter Princess, will come and live with me until after the funeral. Then the family will discuss the way forward for my brother’s widow and daughter.”
I was staring at mother’s shocked face when what he said suddenly hit me. “Widow and daughter? Papa is dead!” the thought dangled in my brain then it clicked and then I screamed and screamed. By the time, people got to me, I had passed out.
“Papa is dead.” The thought hung in my brain like the shadow of a huge mountain. The sun was shining but it was not touching me. The soft breeze of afternoon shook the curtain close to my bed but I felt nothing. I was shivering under the shadow of the mountain; there was pain and fear and disbelief. If you have lost your father or your mother, you will understand how I felt. Papa had been my sun and now there was no day; only night.
The door opened and Uncle Maximus walked in and stood before my bed. He looked at me with a smile and a gleam in his eyes
Maximus: “you are up. That is good. You will feel fine in no time. We are going to my place tomorrow. You be a good girl now.” He said, rubbing my head with his hand.
The action irritated me, so I pushed his hand off. The smile fell from his face for a fleeting second and murder glinted in his eyes.
Maximus:”listen, girl; I am all that you and your mother have between a good life and starvation in the streets. If you had no respect for me before, you better find it if you intend to live in my house and eat my food. Do you understand me?” he asked, spitting out the words between gritted teeth.
Princess: “Mama said that you beat Aunty Ebube; I will not stay with a wicked man like you.” I replied, smug with all the confidence of childhood. I have never learnt to keep my opinions to myself.
The slap rocked me from my head to my toes. I held my face and burst into tears. He shushed me with his index finger on his lips. I held my sobs within me in fear; my face burning with pain. Papa had never raised his hand on me in my life, never. I struggled with the pain, then gulped my tears and dried my eyes; my mind already plotting my revenge. But he was not done.
Maximus: “I am taking your mother as a second wife, so you better behave or I will teach you a lesson, you will never forget.” He whispered, bending over me.
My mouth hung open as he opened the door and stepped out, closing it behind him. “Mama as second wife? To uncle Maximus that beats his wife? No! Not my mother! Never!” I thought to myself as I burst into tears.
Question: Do you see uncle Maximus; I bet he reminds you of someone in your family, on your street, in your church or mosque? Can you guess at the man’s intentions? Do you think Princess will be able to stop him from taking her mother as wife?