The following day, Nene woke up still full of hope. The day was pregnant with the promise of great things, and she basked in it. She savored that warm, delightful feeling, which envelopes a person rising from sweet sleep, that sweet nothingness that entices the waker to slip back under the covers and continue dreaming. But a noise reached her ears, forcing her to abandon any desire to go back to sleep. It was the same noise that had woken her up.
“Papa, please … please … I’m sorry. I won’t do it again,” a voice pleaded.
“You said that last week, and the week before. Why should I believe you?” a male voice fired back in response.
Wham! Wham! Wham!
Nene did not need a soothsayer to tell her what was going on. Someone was getting a thorough beating, and she knew it had to be one of her cousins. What had they done this time?
She quietly went downstairs, and walked into the sitting room to witness the scene that was already playing. Her uncle, Chief Alozie was wearing a house robe, which Nene admitted, actually made him look younger.
Gone was the kind-faced man she called uncle, and in his stead was a man keen on stamping out every form of disobedience from his children. His face portrayed this determination. In his hand was a long thick cane, that looked like it had been freshly plucked from a tree because it still had a few leaves attached to it.
One of her cousins, she could not tell which, was half-kneeling, half-prostrated on the floor of the sitting room, wailing in a loud voice. Her mother stood nearby, hands akimbo, dressed in a lace blouse and wrapper and crowned with an elaborate head tie. Nene deduced that this was Auntie Dubem’s Sunday wear. She did nothing to withhold her husband from administering justice, but instead egged him on, yelling to her daughter that this was what happened to children who disobeyed their parents. Nene walked over to her Auntie’s side and asked her what had happened.
“Can you imagine? This one–” and as she said ‘this one,’ Auntie Dubem walked over and gave the girl a knock on the head. It was when she raised up her head in protest, that Nene saw that it was Amaka, the older of her two cousins.
“This one,” Auntie continued, rejoining Nene, “went off yesterday night, when she thought we were all asleep,” and did not come back until 6:00 a.m. this morning. 6 am!” Auntie yelled, as she made as if to attack the girl again, but Chief who was closer to Amaka gave her another stroke of the cane on her back side. Amaka yelped in pain and pleaded again for mercy, but it fell on deaf ears.
Nene looked at the time. It was barely 6:15 am, and she wondered why her Auntie was already dressed up so early in the morning.
“I was getting ready to go for the 7 o’ clock service,” Auntie continued, “when I remembered that Chikodi had asked me for money to buy materials for a Maths project. I came to their room to give it to her, and saw Chikodi sleeping in her room. When I asked her where Amaka was, she started stammering: ‘I-I-I don’t k-k-k-now, Mama,’ “Auntie said, mimicking her younger daughter’s voice and mannerisms.
“These children think we were born yesterday,” her husband interrupted, still glaring at the offending child.
“Yes, Papa Nduka. They do. As if I was never a teenager myself. I knew she was trying to cover for her sister. So I went and told their father, and we both waited. Papa Nduka waited at the front door and I waited at the back door. Within a few minutes, I saw her creeping in through the back door–“
“Dressed like a harlot! You see her? My own daughter, wearing mini skirt and brazier! Your bride price has reduced,” Chief said his voice heavy with anger. The mention of what Amaka was wearing earned her another five strokes from her father, who beat her as if he had just heard that she stole a neighbor’s goat. The girl’s voice was now hoarse from shouting, and Nene felt sorry for her. But her parents were not done.
“Foolish girl! So, it is when the news is everywhere that the Aba rapist in now in Asaba, that you decided to be going for night parties and gallivanting all over town, abi? She said she was in Agbor for a party. What if a car had hit you or the Aba rapist had finished you–” Chief began, but his wife cut him short.
“Tufiakwa! God forbid. My daughters will never be raped or killed. I will not mourn any of my children o. Papa Nduka, it’s enough.” Auntie Dubem switched gears and began to plead with her husband to forgive the erring child.
At first, he flat-out refused, but after a few minutes, he agreed. Amaka ran upstairs to her room still crying. Her sister, Chikodi who had watched quietly from the top of the stairs, had also disappeared into their room. She had made herself scarce during the entire session knowing that seeing her might make her parents transfer some of the beating meant for Amaka to her as well.
Nene tried to go after Amaka, but she locked the door of the room behind her, putting an end to any consolation from her cousin. Nene, who was now living in one of the spare rooms upstairs, retired to her room briefly. As she began to meditate on what just happened, she recalled that she had seen the Sunday newspaper lying on the dining table. Her uncle’s fleeting reference to the Aba rapist had stirred up her curiosity and she went in search of the paper.
After retrieving it, she went back to her room and looked for an update on the ongoing investigation. There was a short article mentioning the cities that the rapist had struck, and they included Agbor, Onitsha and finally Aba. Some of the victims had provided the police with brief descriptions, and the paper reported that the man they were looking for wore two studs in his ears, and smelt like fish.
The other descriptions they gave were commonplace and from what Nene could see, they might as well have been describing any man who lived in that region: medium height, thick lips, beard, moustache, strong build.
“Good luck catching him,” Nene shrugged as she put the paper down. The report also mentioned that he had struck in Agbor the night before. Nene could now understand her aunt and uncle’s fears for their daughters, especially since Amaka had been in Agbor that night.
She got up and got ready to go to church. She had no intention of going to her aunt’s church, which was a Baptist Church. Instead, she planned to attend a popular Pentecostal church on Ilukwu Ilah road, which was not too far from the house. Being that it was a Sunday, Godwin the driver was off duty, and since Nene could not drive, she had to find her way to church alone. She walked to a street corner not far from the house and flagged down an okada, which took her to church.
When she got there, the service was in full swing. She thought the service was for 10am, but as it turned out, she was an hour late. A well-dressed usher shoved a bulletin into her hand, and herded her to an empty seat in the middle of a crowded row. She had barely set down her bag, so she could join in the praise and worship, when someone on the right nudged her. She turned to come face to face with her neighbor, Dimeji Bakare. She could not hide her surprise.
“Don’t look so shocked. I’m not a heathen!” he yelled into her ear, trying to make himself heard above the noise of talented and talentless vocalists alike, singing praises to God.
Nene thought of telling him that she did not know him well enough to come to such a conclusion, and that coming to church did not mean he was a believer, but decided against it. She just grinned and shook the hand he extended to her. Less than twenty minutes later, when the woman on the pulpit asked visitors to stand up for the church to welcome them specially, Nene and Dimeji stood up at the same time.
It was his first time too? Another shocker.
After the service, they went with other visitors to the visitor’s parlor for refreshments and to learn more about the church. Dimeji attached himself to her, and followed her everywhere like a lost puppy. Nene was amused.
When the meet and greet was over, Dimeji asked if she had other plans for the rest of the day, to which she responded in the negative.
“Might I interest you in lunch at Mr. Biggs?” he asked her.
“Why not? Which one?” Nene replied.
“Is that a trick question? The only one of course. The one on Nnebisi road.”
“That was a trick question. I’m not pleased that you didn’t fall for it.”
“Oh yeah? Don’t worry. I’ll pretend to fall for the next one.”
They both laughed and Dimeji led the way to his silver Toyota Camry, which had been mercilessly roasted by the sun.
“So do you always take your neighbors to Mr. Biggs every Sunday?” Nene asked, as Dimeji drove them to the restaurant.
“Of course. Haven’t you heard? Father Christmas moved to Asaba, and he’s not an old man.”
Nene smiled and proceeded to ask him where his red suit was, and why he was delivering presents in August. Dimeji did not have an answer for that, but announced to her in a clear voice:
“If you hang around me long enough, you’ll uncover even more secrets.”
Then, he winked. That wink. It spoke of upcoming mischief and reminded Nene of someone she used to know in primary school. The boy used to wink at her anytime she saw him stealing pencils from the store at the back of the class, which was quite often. Nene wondered if Dimeji had ever stolen anything before, and then reprimanded herself for thinking such evil thoughts of a man who was treating her to lunch.
– to be continued –