That Christmas, the family gathered.
Jindu Ikeme was sitting in his airy balcony overlooking the wide expanse of roof and tree that was the small town he lived in. His sagged and grey chin rested on the crook of the walking stick he’d had to use since his fall down the stairs last Easter. From below him, in the parlour and kitchen, came noises that constantly reminded him that the family had gathered.
Voices were undulating in chatter and flip-flopped feet were slapping the tiled floors all over the big house. Jindu could hear the uncontrolled squeals of his six grandchildren – all of whom were below ten – as they darted about the house with their plastic and stuffed toys or caused a flurry of siren sounds to erupt from their video games. His stomach churned a beat in anticipation as the invisible aroma of brewing meat snaked into his nostrils, making them twitch. He could hear the women laugh at the funny stories the men told them. And his heart struck up a tune as unfamiliar as it was welcome.
Yes, they were gathered again after so long. They had come to share the joy of being together.
The first of them to come home was Alex. Just like now, Jindu had been sitting in the balcony that evening when his youngest son had hopped down the noisy bike that pulled up in front of the house.
He had taken his son’s hand in a firm handshake of welcome – because Alex hated being embraced – inquired after Ndubuisi, the eldest of his children, who was in Asaba, where Alex was too, working as a librarian with the Delta state government.
“Ndu is fine, papa,” Alex replied shortly, slinging his holdall across his shoulder and preceding his father into the house. He was a tall man, five-foot-two, with ebony skin and a winning smile, and far more good-looking than all his siblings put together – not that they lacked comeliness in the family, but then, Alex was the one who got the second, third and fourth looks anywhere. He was the one with whom Jindu and his wife, Beluso, had had trouble in his maturing years, because the girls from school wouldn’t stop visiting.
“I wonder why you didn’t come with them since you all stay together,” Jindu said, his words drifting out in that sedate way they usually did whenever he thought an action stupid or unwarranted.
Alex dropped his bag on a side stool. “We don’t live together, papa. Besides I couldn’t possibly wait for Ndubuisi who has his own family to get ready.”
Jindu nodded his agreement with his son’s point. It stood to reason that Ndubuisi and his wife, Annette, would need more time to prepare themselves and their kids for the trip down here. Alex, on the other hand, was unmarried – unlike his other siblings – and at thirty-four, his father was worried sick because he didn’t seem in a hurry to settle down. In fact, from his blasé look now, it wasn’t one of the things on his mind. What was keeping him?
“Where’s mama?” Alex cut into his father’s reverie, oblivious to what they were about.
Jindu sighed, shrugging his bony shoulders to cast off his depressing thoughts; they could keep for now. When the whole family was gathered, he would bring them up again – aloud. So he said instead, “Your mother went for a meeting.”
Ndubuisi arrived the next day, surprising his parents.
“Ah-ah!” Jindu exclaimed as he walked up to the jeep to greet his first son and family. “And to think Alex came in just yesterday oh.” He patted the heads of his granddaughters, Adaure and Chimma, and lightly hugged his daughter-in-law, Annette, telling her she had put on some since the last time they saw. Annette bared even teeth in appreciation of the compliment. She was a dark and pretty woman, small but proportioned.
Jindu turned back to his son. “I was saying that Alex could have come with you people instead of wasting transport fare coming alone,” he said in the same tone he’d used for Alex yesterday.
Ndubuisi sighed in exasperation, his huge bulk deflating an inch or two. His father was not one to leave a matter until he had juiced it dry for everything it was worth. He was damn sure Alex had given papa an answer to this same question – or one similar – yesterday. “Papa,” he said with as much patience as he could manage, “Alex is a grown man who knows the way to his father’s compound. You don’t expect us to carry him around like he is a child simply because he’s in Asaba too. Besides, as at yesterday, Annette and I were yet to finish preparations for the journey.”
“Yes, papa,” Annette concurred from the other side of the car where she and Alex were exchanging pleasantries.
Beluso came out then, her tiny lips parted to allow the corners pin back her wrinkled cheeks.
“Mama,” Ndubuisi called, glad to get away from his father’s harassment, “how are you?”
“Well…” Beluso spread her hands. “As you can see, fine!”
Kenna arrived next. Darling Kenna, Jindu fondly thought. His beautiful, intriguing Kenna, whose very existence was a Midas touch of sorts; she had a way of turning around anything she did or was to gold. She was the last and most pampered child of the family; she’d never known wanton scolding, never been flogged beyond six taps of a chewing stick on her palm, and had never lost a case with her siblings; her father or mother – depending on whose court the case was dragged to – was sure to rule in her favour. Jindu and Beluso didn’t realise until Kenna was well into her teens that they had actively spoilt their daughter. But they were wrong – and in for their first surprise.
However the Fates did it, Kenna didn’t turn out as most children in her situation did. She was neither sulky nor wont to throw tantrums, sloppy nor selfish. Of all her siblings she was the only one who could think on her two feet no matter the crisis – even if she had them up in the air, poking the sky, with all of her blood pounding down to her head. That she was intelligent too helped.
The second intriguing thing about Kenna was her build. At thirty, she was still as fat from hair to toenail as she’d been on the rainy day she was born. She filled three-quarters of the doorways in the house (except for the double entrance doors of course) and when she moved, every part of her shook in tandem with her pace. And there again was the irony. Kenna was always moving. When she wasn’t sleeping at night, she was cooking or dusting; when she wasn’t working at her office at Shell, Warri she was attending PTA meeting or packaging stuff for her mother-in-law in Ohafia. She was one of those very-few women who could handle the house’s bills and maintenance when her husband, Ben, didn’t have the time to. With her, there was hardly a rest – just segueing from one activity to the next.
Yes, Jindu thought, shaking the large hand of Kenna’s husband – Ben – Kenna had turned out okay for one who was fat, fed fatter and pampered at childhood.
He beamed at Kenna over the bonnet of the obviously new jeep and addressed her in his usual way: “Daughter.”
Kenna returned the gesture, advertising her dimples. “Daddy.” She bounced over to her father and hugged him warmly. “How are you, daddy?” She was also the only one of her siblings that didn’t call her parents “papa” and “mama,” but “daddy” and “mummy”.
“I can see,” she enthused, taking his dry hand in hers. “Mum’s doing a nice job,” she added amid smiles. “Hope the hip is not giving you trouble at all.”
A burst of excited giggles issued from the car as Kenna’s children ran out from it, tearing at each other in their push to reach the front door first.
Kenna switched off the smile on her face and jerked her head in their direction. “Emeka! Sophia! Come back here this instant!”
The children braked their race sharply, their forms frozen in the chill of their mother’s voice.
“I said come back here, not stop stare at the door!” Kenna snapped further. “Quick!”
They obeyed and huddled together at their mother’s feet.
“Have you greeted your grandfather?”
Emeka and Sophia turned to each other, as if unsure what to answer until they had silently liaised with each other. They looked back up at their mother and shook their head contritely.
“And you’re busy dashing into the house like children of animals. Come on, will you greet your grandfather before I beat stars out of your eyes.”
Jindu smiled indulgently at his annoyed daughter and penitent grandchildren. “Aren’t you too hard on these little ones, daughter?” he asked in Igbo.
Kenna shook her head emphatically. “Daddy, I’m not taking the same chances you and mum took with me. I might not be so lucky.” She snapped her fingers thrice at the children. “Ngwa, you two go help your daddy get the stuff in the car.”
Chimezie tore into his father’s compound in his Toyota and didn’t stop until the car bumper almost kissed the veranda’s concrete rails.
Jindu and Beluso ran out of the house with raised eyebrows and pounding hearts. Jindu’s critical eyes quickly inspected the rails for any signs of damage. None, so he faced his son. But his wife had already taken on Chimezie.
“How many times do we have to sing it into your deaf ears that your madman style of driving will send you to your death one day?” she railed.
“Mama, the last thing you want to do when travelling all the way from Kano to the east is crawl along the road,” Chimezie excused his behaviour, waltzing up to her, and hugging her lightly. “Papa” – he turned to his father – “how’s that your waist? It’s better now I’m sure,” he added, not waiting for his father to answer. He left them for the boot where he proceeded to unload their things from it.
Chimezie was like that: all briskness and business. He didn’t waste time on sentimentalities but was far from insensitive. He was jovial – the comedian of the family – a trait that belied the fact that he was a shrewd businessman.
His wife, Oby, was with Beluso, asking after her mother-in-law’s wellbeing and telling her that the journey went fine save for Chimezie’s “velocity” which made sure that half the dust their tyres whipped up along the way ended up in her “Christmas hair.”
“Sorry, my dear,” Beluso sympathised. “I don’t know what to tell my son again oh.” She opened her palms in a gesture of utter helplessness. “Where is Rina?”
“In the car, sleeping,” Oby said, walking with her back to the car. Oby was tall and long-limbed and carried herself with the impressive grace of a woman who knew people watched and admired her. She was fashionable too – right now wearing a soft chiffon blouse over blue plastered-to-the-hip jeans. Her husband and daughter were also smartly dressed; God forbid that her family would be seen out wearing just anything.
“The journey has worn her out,” Oby was saying now to her mother-in-law as she gingerly lifted her three-year-old daughter onto her bosom and out of the car.
“I knew it’d be you, reckless driver.” Kenna was marching down the short veranda steps up to the car. She shook her head good-naturedly at her brother, and threw her big arms around her sister-in-law and niece. “Look at you!” she sang, stepping back from them, “You’re shining.”
Oby snorted. “Which kin’ shine? It’s you people in oil that we should be talking about now. Look at you, fresher than Jos tomatoes every time we see.” She laughed at her own joke and Kenna joined her.
“Abeg, Oby, leave me jare,” she pleaded, playfully slapping the other woman’s arm. They’d known each other since university where they both belonged to the Rotary club. However, they hadn’t been friends then until – somehow – Chimezie had met and started dating Oby.
Alex, Ndubuisi, Annette, Adaure and Chimma, Emeka and Sophia and Ben all poured from the house to greet the new arrivals.
The day had aged extensively and wore on an indigo hue, signifying that nightfall was but minutes away. The laughter of the reuniting family rang out in the cool dusk air and merged with the tweets of the retiring birds.
Victoria was the last to arrive – on Christmas Eve – with her husband, Gaius and son, Roy. They’d come all the way from Cameroon where they lived. Jindu took one look at his older daughter and second child and decided that time hadn’t changed her one bit. He expected no less anyway. Victoria was still unsure where next to place her foot, she still jumped like a frightened cat each time someone came near, she still groped around her throat for words before she uttered them, and her big brown eyes still had that misleading vapidity in them that said she was anything but what she was – a teacher. Her hair was still worn in the same characterless braids she’d been wearing since she was twenty-five thirteen years ago.
Gaius came round to his wife’s side of the car to help her out. Everyone knew he was such a proper gentleman who cared without asking questions and who never criticised. It was easy to see what Victoria had seen in him because Gaius was nowhere when it came to comeliness. His looks were bland as white paper, undefined and plain absent. So she had settled for him and for a life that ensured she was far away from her family much of the time. Jindu thought these thoughts every time, but managed to convince himself – every time – that his deductions were wrong.
Victoria slipped her hand easily into her husband’s and with a murmur of thanks, slid out of the car. Roy had already thrown open the car door and was chattering to his grandparents in heavily accented English. He sometimes forgot himself and lined his speech with French.
Victoria and Gaius, arm in arm, walked up to Jindu and Beluso and greeted them politely. Beluso nodded to them both with a small smile and Jindu shook his second son-in-law’s hand briefly before the rest of the family came out to greet and help with unloading the boot.
Jindu watched them greeting one another and sighed gratefully.
Yes, they had gathered, Jindu thought. They were here, all of them. Now the joy could begin.
What he didn’t know was that a war would be fought first.