Last Christmas it’d taken only a literal glance over the fence at his egocentric neighbour, Cyril Echezona, bringing off his second family reunion in a decade for Jindu Ikeme to decide that this Christmas all his children must come home with their families. If Cyril Echezona hadn’t been Cyril Echezona – loving to blabber about everything he did – Jindu would not have thought much of the matter of a reunion. But then Cyril had bustled into his house and – over drinks – begun to yap about how wonderful his children were doing in business and family and how blessed they were to remain together as a family. Jindu hadn’t missed the oblique criticism in Cyril’s tone and despite his diabolic wish that the other man’s gargantuan belly would burst already so he could die, he nursed his anger quietly and frenziedly called up his children five months ago, informing them that he would have them all home for Christmas – and no excuses.
Ten years had passed since they’d all sat together as a family, swapping stories, poking fun at one another and eating fruit. In that time, Jindu’s children had come home in patterns so chequered it was unsettling, and there’d been holidays where none would show up at all. Jindu had endured until Cyril Echezona’s blasted family reunion.
If nothing else, he wanted to prove to Cyril that he too could get his family together and that they were happy.
Tonight’s Christmas dinner would achieve just that.
After saying grace, they dug into the food and struck up conversation. In the Ikeme household the rule of silence at meals was there to be splintered. While soft Boney M played, they ate and traded stories from business to work to their children’s naughtiness compared to the children they were aeons ago and to men-and-women relationships. Somehow the last subject found a way to rest everyone’s attention on Alex like a crown on his head.
Beluso forced chewed food down her throat, knowing what was coming from her husband. She hadn’t expected him to bring it up over their special dinner.
Everyone dined in silence – and with bated breaths.
“Why are you not married, Alex?”
Audible sighs issued forth from the chests around the table. The uncomfortable question no one wanted to take on had been dropped by Jindu – like overripe mango barely hanging onto its branch.
Alex swept his gaze round the table, beginning from his siblings and their spouses, to his mother, then his nephews and nieces, and lastly his father. “What do I answer to that?” he asked tentatively.
“Your reason is what you should answer to that.”
Alex turned down the corners of his lips, nodding sagely. “I see.” He lifted his glass of wine to his lips, finished off what was left of it, went for a refill before he spoke again. “I’ve not found a suitable girl,” he answered then drank.
No one said anything for some time, not even Jindu. They were chewing over Alex’s answer along with their food. Then Ndubuisi dropped his spoon on his plate, momentarily stealing everyone’s attention his way. “Alex, this has been your story for years now,” he said vaguely.
Chimezie took over. “Well, if there’s something you are not comfortable making open, you don’t have to worry about it. We’re your family. We’ll support and never judge you.” His tone was kind – in the way it would be if he were coaxing a child into telling the truth about missing meat rest assured he wouldn’t be punished if, indeed, he’d stolen it.
“Something like what?” Alex queried with a raised eyebrow. Incredulous amusement twisted his features.
Chimezie spread his palms in an I-don’t-know gesture. “Like…maybe you don’t plan to get married at all…” He trailed off, throwing his father and older brother a burning look that said, You started this; finish it.
“And how would you know that?” Alex challenged Chimezie and indeed everybody else at table, except – of course – the children.
“I’m sorry, Alex,” Chimezie said. “I just wanted you to know we are open-minded, and are only concerned, not critical.”
Alex’s sigh sagged his shoulders. He admired Chimezie a lot, and wished he was more like him. His older brother might be senseless behind a steering wheel, carefree with everything he did and not patient with anything that wasn’t astute business sense and uncomplicated superficiality, but he had a good heart. He admitted mistakes quickly and apologised for them and his help in anything was never hard to obtain. “It’s okay, Mezie –”
“No, it’s not!” Jindu barked, slamming his palm on the table.
Beluso jumped. “Please,” she implored, “we’re supposed to be eating the food not spitting in it.”
“Let the food go to hell!” Jindu snapped. “My son has to tell us why he’s yet to do the proper thing by us.”
“Papa,” Alex began but was caught short by Ndubuisi.
“Perhaps you have a girlfriend and are not sure. We could help you.”
Alex threw a grotesque smile Ndubuisi’s his way. “Help me with snatching her, you mean?” He let his gaze wash over Annette, then flow back ominously to pin Ndubuisi.
“What nonsense are you talking about?” Ndubuisi’s words spurted across the room like jets of flame.
“This is getting out of hand,” Kenna gasped, her fingers clasping her fork tightly. She hadn’t eaten a morsel since Alex became the subject of conversation and her distress hung on her face for all to see.
“You just noticed that?” Alex asked as though she had said the stupidest thing in the world.
“Let’s not set a fire we won’t be able to control,” Gaius begged no one in particular. “For the sake of the kids – at least.”
Victoria, who had been quiet, eagerly got up, adjusted her glasses and herded the children out of the room, her head down, her feet thinking twice before taking each step. She didn’t utter a word; just led the children quickly away – like an excuse to get away.
The war raged on.
“Your despicability is the nonsense we have in this family,” Alex was spitting at his brother. “You have no right to talk in this matter, shameless fool.”
“Do not speak to your elder brother like that, young man!” Jindu crashed in. “What has gotten into you?”
“Nothing, papa. In fact something has gotten out of me – the vomit I’ve been holding inside for so long because of this idiot you call your first son.”
Ndubuisi shot up, sending his chair flying back. Annette grabbed his hand to stop him flying over the table to pounce on his brother. Blood was visibly pounding through the huge veins in his temples.
“Alex, please,” Kenna pleaded.
“Me, shut up?”
“Don’t you start acting spoilt with me,” Alex warned.
“One more word from you,” Ndubuisi swore, “and I’ll kill you!” He tore off his wife’s hold on him.
Alex exploded into a fit of hollow laughter. When he recovered, he shook his head solemnly. “I pity you,” he said with all the spite he could muster. “But I pity you more, Annette.”
“Look what you settled for,” Alex fired on. “Did you think because he is my brother that the package was the same?”
Annette gasped. “Stop talking nonsense.” It came out as a desperate plea, rather than a command.
“Nonsense, eh? Where was nonsense when he was stealing you from me?”
“Papa, ask your son what he was doing with my woman. Were women extinct? Ask him.”
Jindu didn’t ask Ndubuisi anything; he couldn’t possibly have without looking insane.
“I could have wasted my time hating you had I not had my revenge before you even struck.” Alex’s lips spread in a gesture that wanted to be a smile but turned out a snarl. “It’s not a coincidence that Adaure looks like her…uncle.”
Beluso screamed. Victoria returned. Annette gasped again, this time louder.
“God, this is shameful,” Ben spat from a face screwed up like that of a man whose head had been dipped in a toilet bowl.
“What do you know about shame?” Ndubuisi turned on Ben with the vengeful zest of a predator finding new prey. “Or has feeling up your little niece become a noble act?”
“I did not feel up Rina.”
“What?” Gaius erupted. “My Rina?”
“I’d nothing of the sort to do with your daughter,” Ben maintained.
“Then what happened?” Victoria asked quietly. She seemed afraid even to ask.
Jindu let his hands drop to his lap. “I don’t believe this.”
“Neither do I,” Kenna said, her voice drenched with mortification at the spectacle their reunion dinner had become.
“And what is it you don’t believe, Kenna?” It was Annette asking. She seemed to have recovered from her shock at Alex’s revelations and was now defiant. “That your family is not as perfect as you thought? Or as you pretend it is?”
“Yes?” Annette raised a long, thin eyebrow. “Of course, this can’t be the same family you told me I wasn’t good enough for, right?”
Oby’s mouth flew open in Annette’s direction “She said that to you too?”
“She said that to you too?”
Neither woman bothered to answer the other’s question; they faced Kenna, invisible hot knives flying from their eyes.
“I had to protect my brothers’ interests seeing as they were settling for women with poor characters.” Kenna’s hard look dared them to challenge that. “You, Annette, were bouncing between Alex and Ndubuisi like a yoyo, and you, Oby – campus chick” she said this with venom –“you weren’t exactly wife material back in the day.”
“Look who’s talking about character, you pampered filth!” Annette was ready to tear out Kenna’s tongue and Oby wouldn’t have minded hurling her fork across the room to connect the prongs with Kenna’s eyes, but she said instead, “Just because you were too fat to look trendy doesn’t mean every other person is a slut!”
“And what’s to prove that you weren’t?”
“It’s your mother who is a slut!”
A heart-piercing moan escaped Beluso’s throat and she began to cry.
“Kenna,” Alex came in-between the women, “you said all that to Annette and Oby?”
“I was –”
“Yes, yes, protecting our interests. What the hell d’you know about responsibility?”
“Well enough to be married with a great job and a wonderful family. And well enough to demand an explanation as to why you’re still unmarried. It can’t be that hard to find a girl – if you’re normal.”
“Search my mouth.” Kenna kissed her teeth and turned her head away from Alex.
“You guys should put an end to this,” Gaius said, “if you don’t want to kill papa.”
Chimezie exploded in a fit of mirthless laughter. “Fancy you saying that, Gaius. Since when did you begin to love my father so much?”
“Chimezie, do not drag me into this.”
“You’re already in this. Have you forgotten last Easter? Didn’t you wish papa had died from his fall? Gaius, weren’t you staring right down at him from the window, not coming down to help him until I caught you?”
“I don’t have anything to say to you.”
“Does this have anything to do with that land in Port Harcourt papa has refused to sell you? Good! So watch it when next you feel like playing judge.”
“Victoria, I wish you’d say something and not sit there moping like you’re not a part of this family,” Alex snapped at his older sister.
Victoria replied slowly and inaudibly. “I cannot be a part of this.”
“Why not? Because you prefer to hide in everyone else’s shadow, is that it?”
Victoria’s head quivered from side to side, and her eyes were small onions behind her thick glasses, like those of someone swallowing a whole apple. “Please…” she couldn’t continue. Her throat had constricted, not as a prelude to tears, but as an accompaniment to her fear of stepping out, saying something, anything. Alex had been her ally all these years. He understood her best; he listened to her whenever she could muster enough courage to speak her thoughts, he was the only reminder that she was a part of the family and not a vase by the television. Was he turning against her now?
“You can’t go on blaming mama for your poor self esteem, Vick,” Alex went on in a tone that was a mix of imploring and preachy.
Beluso raised her head. Her eyes were swollen and red. “Does she blame me?” Her voice was ruined from crying.
“Mama, that’s between you and her,” Alex said. He looked tired. His voice had dropped several notches in pitch and strength. He was tired.
Beluso sniffled, too drained to continue crying.
Victoria stood up calmly and offered her hand to her mother. Beluso hesitated but the steadiness of the offered hand encouraged her so she took it, and let Victoria take her away from the dining room.
The room was calm now; everyone had fallen silent again. Alex had his elbow on the table, his forearm raised upwards to plant his fingers against his head. Ndubuisi was silently grinding his teeth. Annette was a stone statue beside him. Chimezie was absently holding Oby’s trembling hand. Gaius was staring into space above Kenna’s face. And Jindu –
The moment they heard the sniffle, the blood in their faces became suffused with guilt and rotten shame. They wanted to do something, but couldn’t do anything except sit helplessly and watch their father shed tears into his plate.
And so the following Christmas they gathered again. This time there was no dinner, no Boney M, no wine, no war. This Christmas they sat in the parlour upstairs with Beluso and listened to her stories about her husband – his kindness and his grating laughter, his grey beard, the broken heart that killed him ten months ago and the lantanas she would take to the cemetery tomorrow.