Baltasar Gracian once said: ‘Time is the greatest healer’. But was that true? Could time really take away every pain? In my home, where peace took quick peeks and continually poked at us with her long nails, it took a while for things to get back to almost the way they were. I said almost because things never did go back to the way they were. Gracian had been wrong, misguided. Not even time could bring things back exactly the way they had been before the deep dark plunge.
Uncle Peter started business with his old time friend who dealt in the supply of palm oil and occasionally, timber to big companies mostly in other states and sometimes for export. He had asked his wife not to bother about reopening the saloon, and promised me to get ready to begin school. Since JAMB had already been taken for the year, I had to wait till the coming year. He promised to settle the pending bills as soon as his first salary was paid. I had already spent over a year at home, and could not wait to begin school again.
Towards the last days of September, a month after he had begun his new job, he came home one day carrying a huge brown carton, sealed tight with masking tape. We gathered around him and peered as he tore out the hindering tapes. All except Akpan looked on anxiously; Akpan walked into his room. He had entered deeply into a shell, not even the new atmosphere of warmth got to him. He was cold, withdrawn.
Nestled within the overlaying Styrofoam, smelling like the insides of the black shoe he had recently purchased was a gleaming black plastic covering. It looked very familiar. With a little heave, he pulled out a small television set that was to grace our bare sitting room.
We screamed in great delight, shooting our hilarity to the roof as we carefully cleaned our hands on our clothes before patting the black covering as if it were a baby’s cheeks and inhaling the scented odour that came through the tiny holes that perforated its back.
‘Daddy thank you,’ Iniabasi hugged her father. His bald head gleamed, his fleshy face shone.
‘What is going on here?’ Aunty Mmaete had long healed. If at all there was any sign of her ordeals, it was nested in the quiet manner with which she now spoke, and the patience with which she approached issues. Her fiery nature had been subdued by months of long suffering. Baby Ete was wrapped tightly with a wrapper around her back. He too seemed to be aware of the happy atmosphere as he flailed tiny hands into the air and made funny noises only a baby would make.
‘Mummy mummy daddy bought us a televosion,’ Iniabasi said, running to meet her mother.
‘Really?’ She said, running her right hand through her daughter’s hair.
‘It’s television not televosion, Ndisime,’ Etuk cursed.
Iniabasi frowned but quickly dispelled her anger. Today wasn’t a day to be angry at her troublesome sister, she thought.
‘Peter, you bought this?’ Aunty Mmaete said pointing to the TV.
‘Had some change, thought it was high time we got one of these.’ While he spoke, he picked up a stool and placed it at one end of the living room, then he carried the television set and placed it on it. There was no power, so we could not turn it on to enjoy its lighted pictures. But evenings to come found us glued to the screen watching the many black and white pixels that dotted the luminescent screen, when and only when NEPA was gracious enough to confer upon us the titles and benefits bestowed upon foreign citizens.
Aunty sat down on an armchair—there were three new ones now. The old ones had been moved into my cousin’s room, taking up the little space they had for play—and sighed. My uncle kissed her on the forehead and walked to his room.
‘Where is Akpan?’ My aunty asked.
‘I saw him enter the room,’ Etuk, who had been seating with her arms folded over her breast, replied.
‘Imabong,’ my aunty called.
‘Have you arranged Akpan’s clothes for tomorrow?’
‘Yes ma,’ I replied, the joy of the new gadget still fanning my breath.
‘Etuk what of you?’
‘I’m ready for school.’
‘Good. Daddy has promised that you’ll be going back to St. Bernards as soon as this term runs out.’
That brought a smile to Iniabasi’s face.
‘Ini what about you. You are woman now oh. Are your clothes ready?’
‘Yes mummy,’ she said smiling. She sat on the floor and crossed her legs together as she stared excitedly at the new television.
I resumed my buying and selling, though my uncle had asked me to stop. It gave me some money, little handy change every lady should have. My mother had called it vex money. So I kept at it, and with the advent of blue skies, business boomed. When I came home in the evenings, it was with Akpan I hung out. When one lanky, dark skinned and bushy eye-browed customer started showing interest in my voluptuous figure, it was to Akpan I confided.
‘Aunty do you like him?’ he asked innocently one evening when I showed him the wristwatch Donald had bought me.
‘I don’t know, maybe,’ I said.
‘Is he nice?’
‘Well, he bought me this . . .’ I said showing him the wristwatch a second time.
‘I know, I know, but is he nice to you?’
I nodded sheepishly. Admitting my feelings to Akpan was like confessing an entre nous affair with a boy to a young priest without the safety of the confession box.
‘So does that mean you will leave me soon?’ He did not like the idea of me liking some strange man.
‘I would never leave you.’ I held his hand and patted his shoulder. The wisdom of his words made me wonder about the misconception of ages, of his age to be specific. He was so young, yet so . . . so perceptive, so knowing, so precocious, almost vulnerable.
In truth, my heart lay elsewhere.
I hadn’t seen or heard from Victor since after our School Leaving Certificate Exams, he had just disappeared into thin air. I had been to his family compound on two occasions, and both times, I had met the place deserted. Donald was the guy who regaled me with jokes and bought me presents whenever he could spare some change from his abbatoir business. But he wasn’t what I wanted for a man and besides, going to school was a foremost priority for me. Donald kept me company, a friend when I needed one.
‘Aunty Ima,’ Akpan shook my knee. We were seating on the last step of the staircase, watching two agama lizards fighting dexterously for a small, less colourful female who scurried to and fro in amusement.
‘What are you thinking about? I’ve been calling your name for some time.’
‘Oh nothing! I was watching the lizard fight. Its interesting isn’t it?’
‘Yes but aunty,’ Akpan seemed to be more interested in other things than watching two agama lizards. ‘Remeber you promised to buy me something if I passed my primary six exams. I’ll be in class two next year and I still haven’t got any present from you.’
I clasped my hands over my mouth. ‘So sorry dear. How could I have forgotten something so important.’ I faced him. ‘Dont you worry, I’d get you emm . . .’ I scratched my hair with a dirty nail and looked at my cousin. I was at a loss at what to get for him. He was no longer a little kid whom I could have surprised with a toy car, although I still saw the glitter of envy in his eyes whenever he saw Mr. Ukpu’s children playing on the roadside with their toy cars and toy aeroplanes, when we took our evening strolls together. No. I wanted something more for him, something that would really light up his sad face.
Suddenly, he jumped up and howled.
‘Akpan what is it?’ I asked jumping up too. He pointed. His breath came in shallow rasps, his eyeballs had grown in size and a film of sweat appeared on his forehead. I looked at where he pointed at. I saw nothing at first, so I looked closer. That was when I saw it.
I put my arms around him. ‘But it’s just a rat,’ I said pulling him to my bosom. ‘It’s just a rat.’ I could feel him slump against me, the tension and fear seeping out of him. Gently, I pulled him down again, and sat beside him. Our sudden start had chased away the fighting reptiles. We were alone, staring at the fine film of sand that seemed to move with the soft breeze.
‘So what do you want me to get for you?’ I threw in the towel and asked, bringing his mind back to the present.
He was quiet for a while, gazing intently at is palms. ‘Christmas is around the corner,’ he said, ‘All I want is a Christmas gift.’
His voice had changed, sounding rather empty as he spoke. I was worried sick about him. His father’s abuse had left him scared, so scared, though he never cared to admit it even to me.
‘What do you want me to get for you?’
‘What do you want for a Christmas gift?
‘You,’ he said in a damn low tone.
‘I didn’t hear you. What did you say?’
‘You,’ he said again, this time he raised his voice a notch higher. His head was still bowed and he still gazed at his palms.
‘But you have me,’ I told him.
‘I don’t want you to leave my side on Christmas day. That is all I want for Christmas.’
I smiled. ‘And that is what you will get for Christmas,’ I said.
That cheered him up. He threw affectionate hands around me. My uncles loud voice carried to us as he called for his son. We both got up and raced up the stairs, competing on who would get there first. Of course I let him win, brightening the smile on his oval face.
‘Akpan, where have you been.’ Then my uncle saw me come in through the front door.
‘How was school?’ he asked.
‘Come and sit here by my side.’ The boy obliged.
‘Have you done your home work?’
Akpan shook his head.
‘Why?’ his father thundered.
The boy was mute.
I could not bear to see the look on his face so I walked away to the kitchen to assist my aunty prepare dinner. She had a new passion for cooking, and besides, she said I was busy all day in the market haggling with customers, it wouldn’t be fair to pile up empty pots to await my return. So she cooked.
I overhead my uncle, call out to Etuk and Iniabasi to bring him their notebooks for inspection. He generously ditched out queries to anyone who defaulted in completing an earlier assignment or having x marks on his or her mark sheet.
Days journeyed into weeks, and weeks into months. Finally, Christmas was just around the corner. In one of my journeys to the east, I had bought an entire bale of clothes for my cousins, a surprise gift to them for the Christmas. I hid it with aunty Christy and gave her some flimsy excuse about opening it for sale when the month of December was ripe. She had agreed about the double gain in the hoarding and the soundness of my plan, infact she did same too.
Uncle Peter had great plans. We heard hush-hush of course that he had ordered for a Peugeot car from the city. We saw less and less of him as he travelled a lot on marketing runs. But the few times he came home, it was with a bag full of cash.
Aunty Mmaete had even changed the kerosene stove they had inherited at my parents death with brand new ones—two. She idled around with aunty Christy when she was less busy with Ete, feeding the rumour monger with more than her fair share of the season’s gossip.
Everything was set for yet another wonderful Christmas in the Archibong household. Even the worn curtains that had holes the size of pockets had been replaced. The flower vase Uncle Peter had bought over a year ago was taken into his room and replaced by a bigger, fine burgundy ceramic vase which held four sticks of artificial sunflower, whose yellow combs added colour to the parlour. Almost everything but my flat old bed had been replaced. Our home had become heaven overnight. Etuk and Iniabasi bristled with activity although there was really little to be done. They radiated with the joy of the season and ran to their mother every once in a while to confirm if it was true that daddy was buying a new car. She politely brushed them off, keeping her husband’s secret, secret.
Things were beginning to look up in the Archibong household, or so we thought, until calamity struck, putting to shame the famous words of Baltasar Gracian.
It was December fourteenth.