By Marvel Pephel
Nneka is not dead, but she wishes she was. What she has just seen is unbearable. What life is doing to her, she thinks, is not fair. She wants to die, but she won’t. She wishes she wasn’t callous.
Light rises on Chekwube, a young chubby girl with dishevelled hair and cheap worn-out clothes. She is going through her beautiful curlicues for the umpteenth time; she thinks her teacher would be impressed. The parlour, in whose centre she is, is a very furnished one. Her hands are on the glass-topped centre table, and her knees, in her kneeling position, bypass one foot of the centre table. There are numerous paintings on the wall – it’s a nicely-built flat, clean, spacious, homely, inviting. A distant car horn seeps in, indicating that the house is situated at a commercial area, but not close to the main road. In no distant time, the sound of the horn is heard no more. The blind of the parlour’s only window, though wide enough, is pulled down and bright morning light flickers across the parlour. Unbeknownst to Chekwube, Madam Nneka had entered and is inflamed with fury. She walks away from the window and begins to approach Chekwube’s position.
“Chekwube! Have you done the dishes?”
“No, madam!” she says, and runs towards the door leading from the parlour to the corridor before a knock overwhelms her. She sprawls on the floor, crying.
“So after I told you minutes ago about the dishes, you still had the effrontery to stay put, eh?” she kicks her, and her head meets the jamb of the door. “Stupid girl, stand up and go to the kitchen now!”
“Yes, madam!” she says, crying profusely.
Madam Nneka watches her as she walks quickly towards the kitchen. “Stupid girl! You think I brought you here for relaxation? You think I am your mother?” she sighs and flings her artwork to the ground. Today she finds no chance to say, You swallowed a trumpet, see how you talk. Didn’t your mama ever teach you manners? You go off to the streets and boom! You are talking loud and foolish. If you don’t change, you will soon hit your death note. She looks on for a while, and then makes for her bedroom.
Her bedroom is a work of art: there are paintings on the wall, a beautifully-designed chandelier, an expensive chest of drawers, a closet for shoes, a massive bed, and more things that an average woman cannot afford. This is her room, and she knows it! She brings out a diary from a drawer built into the wall, and sits with the padlock on her bed. She writes:
“Ever since my younger sister, Evelyn, married Eze, my life has never been the same. She took my happiness, my conscience and, eventually, my life. Why must she marry Eze? Or, why must she marry the one I love? These questions are two doors that lead to one room. The room of Jealousy! Yes, I have to be honest. Come on, what is it that Evelyn has that I do not. Okay, I know, this should have been in the past now, since I finally got married and have two children. But no, it is not! It is not, because Eze first met me. He would have proposed to me if Evelyn didn’t stand in the way. And she happily got married to the love of my life! It is true they do not have money, and have brought their daughter to stay with me. I have accepted to help allay their troubles, but I loved and still loves Eze. Oh Lord, I still love Eze! How do I free myself from this bondage? How?
Date: 27th May, 1999
Time: 2: 05 pm.”
She closes the diary, and returns it to its drawer. She locks the drawer and leaves the room.
A fortnight ago.
“Darling, do you have some minutes to spare?” Madam Nneka asked her husband. “I want to discuss something with you.”
“What is it?” her husband asked, dropping his favourite magazine.
“It is about our children, Kendrick and Monica.”
“What about them?”
She sat close to him: “It is about their education. We’ve discussed this before; it is about finding them a new school.”
“Oh, there you go again! I told you it was better if they remained in their present school. At least, for now.”
“But what?” he interrupted.
She hesitated, and then searched his eyes for permission to continue: “Um, those teachers there are incompetent. Our children deserve more. Please, let’s take them to Golden Group of Schools. That’s where they belong! Please!”
He peered at her like she was gradually disappearing from his sight: “Please, let’s discuss this again when we’ve tucked ourselves into bed.”
She smiled: “Thanks, dear. Thank you.”
It is the morning of 29th May, and the children are at home. They won’t go to school because it is Democracy Day.
Kendrick, with a strained emphasis: “Mom, play Beethoven, Opus 57: Appassionata or Fur Elise. Appassionata or Fur Elise. Appassionata or…”
“Yes, mom I want Fur Elise. Play us Fur Elise!” Monica joins in, her face a fresh petal of a flower in bloom.
“Okay.” Madam Nneka says. “That would be when you both are done with assignments. Okay?”
“Okay, mom!” both scream, and run for their schoolbags. The playing of classical music has been a routine in the house. A routine enforced by Madam Nneka. In her belief, it shapes the mind positively. And increases concentration! The home tradition has eaten deep into the bones of her children, so much that when they come back from school it must be classical music. Classical music before eating or classical music and eating; whichever way, there must be classical music. And how the kids love this tradition!
Madam Nneka, with a certain recollection: “Monica, please call Chekwube for me. Tell her to come swiftly.”
“Yes, mom!” Monica answers, and goes right away.
She sits with her legs crossed, then falls into the sofa with her hands behind her head. She stares blankly.
One can hear the running steps of the approaching Chekwube from the parlour, as she comes from the corridor.
“Yes, madam!” Chekwube says, genuflecting. Her hands are covered with what looks like lather. She waits for her madam to say something.
“You are smelling!” Monica says, hitting Chekwube’s buttocks. Madam Nneka half-laughs.
“Who taught you that, Moni?” she asks her seven-year old daughter. “Don’t do that again, you hear me?”
Monica mumbles something incoherent.
“Um, Chekwube,” begins Madam Nneka, ”have you washed the children’s clothes?”
“No, madam! I am still washing the plates. I just finished sweeping the house.”
“Chekwube, what have you been doing since morning? “She looks around as though she is looking for something. Maybe something like the stiletto she once used on the girl’s head. “Oh, I presume you are becoming sleeping Beauty in my house. Right?”
“No. No, madam!”
She sighs, probably because she can’t find what she is looking for: “Maybe you want me to break your head. I think that is what you are asking for. When will you go to the market?”
Chekwube, impulsively: “As soon as I’m done with house chores.”
“Will you get out of my sight! And, hey, don’t forget to buy soy sauce from Mama Ejima’s shop down the street!”
“Yes, madam!” Chekwube’s voice echoes, as she hurries down the corridor.
“Stupid girl.” Madam Nneka says, and turns to her children. “Have you both started doing your assignments?”
“Yes, mom!” they answer.
“Is there anyone who needs my help?”
“No, mom. My assignment is very simple,” says Kendrick.
“Mine, too!” Monica exclaims.
“Okay. I will be right back.” She stretches herself and leaves through the front door.
Two months ago.
Eze had come alone to say thank you to Nneka and her husband. Madam Nneka’s husband was not at home. Nneka had expected this visit, but not today. Not impromptu. However, the odds were in her favour since her husband was not around.
“What do we owe this visit?” Nneka said, as she closes the door behind them.
Eze chuckled: “Am I not welcomed anymore?”
With a strained smile: “Who said that? Come on, I am your in-law. This, technically, is your house too. Please, have a seat.”
“Thank you.” Eze said, and slumped into the sofa. “How are your children?”
“They are fine. Probably sleeping or playing inside the house.”
“Is your husband home?”
“No. Anything the matter?”
Not really.” Eze began. “I came to say thanks to you guys for accepting to take care of our daughter, Chekwube…”
“Oh, that? It’s no problem. “Nneka interrupted. “Let me get you kola.”
“No, don’t worry. I won’t stay long.”
“I insist. I will be right back.” She stood and went in. In about a minute, she came back with a bottle of wine and two cups.
“Ah, a bottle of wine! You worry a lot.”
“It’s no big deal.” Nneka said, as she drops the cups into the tray on the centre-table. “Here, open the wine.” Eze takes it.
“Remove your eyes o! I don’t want to marry a second wife.” Eze teased. Nneka laughs. The cap goes off. “Hold your cup.” Nneka did, and he poured her a drink. He poured himself, too.
“Don’t worry, if Chekwube comes, we will take good care of her. She’s my niece.”
“Yes. Thank you so much. Things haven’t been easy for us since I lost my job. We can take care of her other three siblings. Thank you so much.”
“It’s nothing.” She grinned. “It’s nothing. Obviously nothing!” She grinned again; this time, longer.
“You have fine taste; this wine is really good.”
“Of course. Of course, you know I do.” Her gaze is now fixed on him. “Or have you forgotten that you and I have history?”
Wine spilled from his mouth, like he had just discovered a hidden flaw in it. He dropped the cup. “Please, Nneka, let the past remain in the past. I am married to your sister now.”
Nneka, trying to defend herself: “So I am no longer attractive and woman enough, eh? Is that what I understand here? Eh, Eze?”
“That’s an awful thing to say. Nneka, what I had for you wasn’t love. I had a misconception. I am really sorry things turned out this way. I thought we’ve moved on.”
She moved close to him: “Eze, I still love you. My love for you is still fresh. Still blossoming. I love you, Eze.” She falls into his legs now.
“Nneka, please! Your husband won’t take any version of our story if he sees us like this.”
“The door is locked.”
Eze found himself laughing: “You are funny. Look, I am married to Evelyn. I mean, do you want me to leave her for you, or to marry you both or to cheat on her with you? What?!”
“I don’t know. You decide.”
“You are insane.” He picked his face-cap, and moved to the door. “Come and open this door.”
He looked around and found the key hanging close to the door’s jamb. He picked it and saw himself off in a huff.
Nneka picked herself up from the floor, and went to watch Eze from her window. She had expected something other than this. She had expected something wonderful, maybe a miracle. And she got disillusionment!
Madam Nneka, the housewife, has just returned from the market where she saw Eze. After several months. (The sight of the tall, dark, handsome man kindled something in her). She’s home now, and with her diary.
“Why is this world not balanced? Why the unfairness? Why would a man leave a woman for her sister? What is love? Love is a song, and two should dance it. It isn’t okay if one tangos alone; how possible, even, is it? How???
Date: 17th October, 1999
She returns the diary, and leaves her room.
Someone is knocking, and so Madam Nneka goes to open the door.
“Good afternoon, madam.” Chekwube greets.
“Yes. Thank God you are back. Please, drop your schoolbag and take food to my children; today is their extra-school-hours day. Please, hurry.”
She closes the door, and sits to watch television.
Five years later.
The clouds are roaring. It is the rainy season and thunderstorm is paying its usual visits. The roads are wet and the gutters drunk with water. A loud thunderbolt comes and a gentleman almost dies from fear. He is, soon, holding his chest by the corner of a shop — Mallam Issa’s kiosk. He beckons on him to come in. And he does.
“Please, Mallam, I am looking for 25 Lotus Street. Can you help me?”
“Yes. This is the end of Bewithus Street. Lotus begins from that junction.” He points. “Just cross the road.”
“Thank you so much, mallam.”
Chekwube’s principal walks across the road, in search of 25 Lotus Street. In search of Chekwube. He is knocking on a gate.
“Who’s that?” a voice asks.
“Don’t you have a name?”
“I am looking for Chekwube. I am her principal.”
“Okay. I am coming.” The voice says, and footsteps move away from the gate. A minute later, footsteps approach the gate. “You can come in.” the gateman says, showing his gap teeth.
“Please, follow me.” They walk a little before the gateman points him to an entrance where Madam Nneka had been waiting.
“Ah, principal! What a surprise! You are welcomed. Come in.”
“Thank you, madam.”
She leads him inside, and gives him a seat. “Is everything alright?”
“Yes. Sure. I came to see you,” says the principal, before he recollects, “Aha, Chekwube wasn’t in school today, why?”
“She has fever. We are taking care of her.”
“Oh, sorry to hear that! I wish her a speedy recovery.”
“It’s alright. Thank you.”
“Yeah.” he says and brings out a paper from a file. “I don’t have much time because I have to go back to school. Here’s it. Chekwube has just received a scholarship to study abroad.”
Madam Nneka, holding the paper: “Abroad?”
“Yes, I’ve always known that your daughter was destined for great things. In fact, I was the one who encouraged her to apply for the scholarship scheme. I am very happy for your family. Congratulations.”
“My own Chekwube? Wow, this is good news!”
“Absolutely, madam! There’s got to be a God up there.”
“Yes,” she says, nodding her head awkwardly. “Thank you principal for your efforts and care. I appreciate.”
“It’s nothing madam. I will be on my way now.” He stands.
“Let me get you something, Sir.”
“No, don’t worry. And, please, tell Chekwube to get well in time for her mock exam tomorrow.”
“Okay, I will. Good bye!”
“Good bye.” The principal steps outside.
Madam Nneka feels a pain in her heart. She looks flabbergasted, shocked, almost unbelieving: “Phantasmagorical? Interesting. Chekwube? Phantasm! Evelyn’s…? No.” She wipes her eyes, an unholy thought rising like a tide in her mind.
She paces about. She scratches her head. She nods vigorously. The thought still rankling with her, she leaves for her bedroom.
The following morning.
She takes the narrow path that leads to Baba Buro’s Place, the herbalist shop.
“Good morning, Baba,” she says, genuflecting.
“Yes, my daughter. You are welcomed to where solution lives. Welcome!”
“Thank you, Baba.”
“Yes, what can Baba Buro do for you?”
“Um, I want you to give me a medicine for total sleeping.”
“Total sleeping? What does that mean, my daughter?”
Madam Nneka, scratching her head: “I want medicine for death. A poison.”
Baba Buro laughs. He laughs for long. Madam Nneka remains standing, uncertain of what to do.
“Madam! You have come to the right place. Come, sit here.” he points her to a wooden stool. “How do you want to apply this poison?”
“Via food. Via food, Baba.” she says, and then adds.”And I want a poison that takes up to three hours before working.”
“I see.” Baba Buro says, and raises a calabash from the floor. “Here, pick one.” Madam Nneka picks. “Spray this evenly on the food of your to-be-victim, and you could expect a dead rat that day.” Baba Buro laughs heartily.
“Yes, woman! Pay your dues.” He drops the calabash behind him. Madam Nneka puts her hand into her handbag.
“Here’s it, baba.”
“You are welcome! Go and achieve your goal.”
Madam Nneka, stepping outside, breathes in heavily. She scratches her eyebrow and then heads for home.
Cut the onion, dice it into semi circles;
Be careless with it.
Cut the onion, but don’t ask:
“Why must I lachrimate?”
“You said you’d be going to see your parents today, right?” Madam Nneka asks.
“Okay. I will not be home early today, so I kept lunch for you in the kitchen. Also, there is a bottle of juice for you. Congratulations on your scholarship.”
“Thank you, madam.” Chekwube says, and heads for school.
Madam Nneka, with a sly smile on her face: “Poor girl! Who would ever suspect I poisoned her, when she was going to see her parents. Their suspicion would be directed to indiscriminate eating of food with friends. Madam Nneka, you are bad!” she laughs, and goes in to get dressed.
Chekwube comes back from school filled with joy. She decides that she needs not the food, and concludes on taking it to her cousins. She dresses up neatly and goes to their school. She takes a taxi to Golden Group of Schools, and hands the food to Kendrick and Monica. (The school would dismiss in an hour, and the children cared less. The food they would have rushed home to eat was already in their hands!) Chekwube bids them goodbye, and goes to see her parents.
Not equal to Not returning.
“Daddy will buy me a toy today,” says Monica, grinning from ear to ear. “Guess what it is going to be.”
“I don’t know, I can’t guess.” replies an uninterested Kendrick.
“A big teddy bear!” Monica announces, overjoyed.
Kendrick ignores the announcement, opens the door and lets her sister in. They are laughing, as they go in. Kendrick goes to the DVD player and summons the Classical music. Their classical music. Monica orders a change, and Kendrick effects it. They are nodding, they are falling, they are dozing. They are dying. They are …
Later, in the evening.
Madam Nneka has just returned, singing. With a sly smile spread all over her face, she turns the doorknob.
“Kendrick!” Her eyes has just seen something. “Monica! Kendrick, Monica!” She flings her bag to the floor, tears surging through her eyes. “Who did this? Somebody help! Somebody help!!” She wishes what she has just seen is a movie. But it is not. She throws herself on the floor, while the music continues to play. She lays still, until the last chord strikes, ending with a melodious note which falls cold. Death too is a song; at least, so she thinks and crawls weakly to switch off the DVD player.
And never, throughout that day, did she remember her diary.
Marvel Chukwudi Pephel is a prolific Nigerian writer who writes poems, short stories and other things besides. Has works appearing or forthcoming in Pyrokinection, High Coupe, The Kalahari Review, The Avocet, African Writer, The Naked Convos, Peeking Cat Poetry Magazine, Jellyfish Whispers, PIN Quarterly Journal, Praxis Magazine for Arts and Literature, Poetry Tree on the Charles, Academy of the Heart and Mind, amongst others. Shortlisted for 2016 Quality Poets Competition. Has poetry selected for the Best New African Poets 2016 Anthology. He is currently a two-time winner of the Creative Writing Ink Competition (Ireland). You can follow him on Twitter @Marvel_C_Pephel.