The piece below is an excerpt from ‘Shadows from the Past’, one of the three stories in Chigozie Anuli Mbadugha’s Beyond the Trial.
I dashed out of the house before Mother could talk me out of it. Uncle Morris’ house was still within walking distance from ours. I got to the house in record time as I half ran, and half walked to the place. I could hardly wait to bare my mind to my aunt. His house was just the way I remembered it. Nothing had changed, not even a coat of paint in the ten years I had been away. It was a brown bungalow with a long corridor separating the long row of rooms on each side. Uncle Morris and his family occupied the first four rooms on the left wing of the house. The rest of the rooms were occupied by three other families. It was an interesting house. I had never been able to decipher if the walls had ever been painted, or if the evident brown colour was the effect of dirt and dust on unpainted, plastered walls over the years. The shared toilet, bathroom and kitchen areas were housed in a small building at the back of the house. There was a low fence round the compound, but it was so low that the heads of people in the compound were visible from the road. There were no visible heads as I approached the compound, but as I passed through the small gate leading into the compound, a beautiful young lady emerged from the house. She looked familiar, and I stared at her trying to remember who she was.
“Ada!” she shouted and ran to me.
I embraced her, and searched her face for clues.
“Amaka!” I finally identified her, thankfully. “Is it really you? You have blossomed into a very beautiful young woman. Mother says you are married now. Your husband must be taking very good care of you,”
Amaka was the last of Uncle Morris’ five children.
“Dear cousin, leave that matter. It is God that is taking care of me,” she replied, laughing. “Our people have an adage that because all lizards crawl on the floor, it is difficult to know the one that has a stomach ache.”
I laughed in spite of the heaviness of my heart. It was a good thing Amaka was the first member of Uncle Morris’ household I was bumping into. My anger reduced a bit after our interaction, and I was able to introduce the subject matter of my visit, subtly and more diplomatically.
“What of your parents? Are they home?” I asked.
“My mother is in the kitchen. Your uncle saw off one of his friends that visited. I am surprised you did not see him on your way. He will soon be back. Ada, you are looking well. Living abroad suits you,” said Amaka, looking me over.
“Don’t be deceived. Living abroad is tough. I can’t count how many times I have wanted to run back home.”
She laughed and shook her head in disbelief. “Ada, it is a pity we are not identical twins. I wouldn’t have minded trading places with you at all.”
She led me into the sitting room and went to fetch her mother. Aunty May came in to receive me, wiping her wet hands on her wrapper before embracing me. Amaka did not return to the sitting room with her mother. I suspected she had been asked to organize some refreshments for me. I had no intention of eating anything on this visit.
“Welcome Ada, how are you? How are your husband and children?” asked Aunty May.
“They are fine, Ma,” I replied.
Uncle Morris walked in at this juncture, and looked surprised to see me in his sitting room.
“Good evening, Sir,” I said coldly.
“Good evening, Ada. How are you?” he replied, equally cold in his response.
“We thank God, Sir,” I said. “Aunty May, what happened between you and my mother?”
I had no desire to beat about the bush. We had exchanged enough civilities as it was. Uncle Morris made a bid to leave the room.
“No, Uncle. Please, stay. The issues I need to discuss with my aunt will require your input,” I said, looking around the room.
Amaka was standing at the door leading from the sitting room to an adjourning room. She was holding a tray with some soft drinks and groundnuts and had parted the patterned damask curtain to gain entry into the sitting room. She froze at my question, unsure whether to continue her entry or retreat into the adjoining bedroom.
“Amaka, please come in and sit down. Do not worry about drinks on my account. I just had a heavy lunch at home before coming. You are an adult and a member of this family; I don’t think you should be in the dark concerning the issues I want to discuss with your parents,” I said.
She looked at her parents, perhaps for approval, but when none was forthcoming, she shrugged, and sat in the armchair closest to the door. Asking Amaka to join us proved to be one of the best decisions I had ever taken, but at the time I invited her, I had no idea I was on the verge of opening a can of worms in Uncle Morris’ household.
“Aunty, you and my mother have been friends for years. I was surprised to learn you are not even on speaking terms now. What happened?” I persisted.
“Ada, my daughter,” began Aunty May, “your mother hurt me deeply. I found out she had been making overtures at my husband. She was like a sister to me. I could not bear it so I confronted her. Thereafter, we ceased to be as close as we were in the past.”
“Aunty, I have two questions for you. How did you find out about these overtures, and what was the manner of this confrontation of my mother?” I asked.
Uncle Morris tried to leave again.
“Uncle Morris, please sit. I don’t know why you are so keen on excusing yourself,” I said.
“I am a busy man. These are women’s matters. I don’t see why my presence is so essential,” he protested.
“Uncle, I will venture into matters that you will need to clarify for your wife. It is better if you stay put,” I said pointedly.
He looked a little worried and sat down. If Uncle Morris had been praying silently for a phone call or visitor to disrupt our talk, his prayer was not answered. What he did not know was that, I was so determined to expose him that the only thing that could have stopped me from pouring out my heart, was if one of the participants in our discussion suffered a heart attack.
“Your uncle was forced to reveal her overtures to me when she was persistent,” said Aunty May.
I reacted in an extremely unexpected manner. I started to laugh.
“Which Uncle?” I asked her, between outbursts of laughter.
“Ada, what is so funny? How many uncles do you have?” asked my aunty, obviously irritated at my bewildering reaction.
“Paternal or maternal, Ma?” I asked.
“Don’t play innocent with me, Ada. Paternal of course,” she replied impatiently.
“Aunty May, I am surprised you have not seen through Uncle’s character. In all my life, I am yet to meet a nobler woman, with a greater degree of self control, forbearance, and integrity than my mother. If you could believe the lies Uncle fed you with about my mother, then you do not deserve the gift of her friendship,” I said angrily.
“Why would my husband lie to me about her?” she asked me.
I was bemused at her naivety. “Your husband lied to you because he was trying to get back at my mother for refusing his advances. He employed all manner of tactics to frustrate her to no avail, including refusing to act as a guarantor for her rent, and then trying to frustrate her friendship with you.”
She looked at Uncle Morris for answers, but he said nothing. He had a defiant look on his face that told her to believe whatever she liked.
“I need some proof,” she told me hesitantly.
“Did you ask for proof when you disparaged my mother before her neighbours? Did you ever think for one minute that you could be wrong? Why are you asking for proof now?” I asked her angrily.
“Morris…?” she began, with a silent plea in her eyes for him to respond.
“May, you can believe whatever you like,” he said finally.
I looked at my uncle. He looked so small to me. I could not make up my mind who was a better man – my late father or his brother. I felt sorry for his wife who was a victim of his manipulation and lies. It was time to reveal all.
“Aunty, six months after my father died, I visited this house,” I began.
From the corner of my eye I saw Uncle Morris sit forward. He was beginning to look a little rattled.
“I met Amaka and Ebuka at home with Uncle. I was told you had gone to the farm with the other children. Soon after my arrival, Uncle sent both of them out on an errand. I felt offended because he deprived me of their company,” I continued. “I felt he could have sent Ebuka alone and left Amaka at home to keep me company. I did not know he had an ulterior motive for sending both of them out together.”
At this point, Uncle Morris was extremely uncomfortable. “How many years ago did this purported event occur? I am sure we are looking at nearly fifteen years or more. Is this story relevant to the quarrel between your mother and my wife?”
I glared at him, but chose to ignore his attempt at changing the topic and distracting me. Amaka remained silent, head bowed, throughout this interplay.
“This information should have come out years ago, Aunty. He called out for my assistance soon after they left. I had been sitting outside the house with my cousins before they left on the errand. I entered the sitting room, but he was not there. He asked me to enter the bedroom, and help him fetch his pair of shoes from underneath the bed. He was clad in only a towel tied round the waist, and though I didn’t suspect him initially, I was very uncomfortable. I made a quick dash to retrieve the shoe he wanted. In one swift movement, Uncle Morris locked the door. By the time I stood up, he was standing very close to me, and the reality of my predicament dawned on me.”
“You lie! No wonder you had issues with your father perpetually. Liar! Why are you telling this story now?” demanded Uncle Morris, feigning anger.
I ignored Uncle Morris’ outburst and continued my story.
“I quickly picked up an empty bottle of liquor lying on the floor, close to the head of the bed, broke it, and presented the jagged end to Uncle. I warned him that if he attempted to come any closer to me, I would not hesitate to poke him with the bottle. He must have seen the mad fury in my eyes because he stepped back. I only had to ask him to unlock the door once. Aunty May, that is the kind of depraved husband you are married to,” I concluded.
“Lies, all lies!” shouted Uncle Morris. “No wonder you always had issues with your father when he was alive. Mischief-maker!”
“Aunty May, I rest my case. I demand a public apology to my mother, and a retraction of your false and baseless accusations. If you don’t, I will publicly disparage your husband. His parish priest will be the first person I will talk to,” I threatened.
“Cheap blackmail!” shouted Uncle Morris.
“No. This is not blackmail. It is payback time,” I retorted.
Amaka sat motionless, sobbing silently.
“Amaka dear, why are you crying?” asked Aunty May.
I was equally surprised at her reaction. The last time I had looked in her direction, she had been pensive, but not in tears.
“Because what Ada said is true,” replied Amaka.
“And how would you know? You were very young at the time in question,” said Uncle Morris in a shaky voice.
Amaka ignored him.
“I remember the day Ada was talking about. It is only now that the pieces of the jigsaw are falling into place. Ebuka and I came home, from the errand Dad sent us on, to find Ada had gone. I was quite upset because she had promised to braid my hair. When I asked her later why she left without waiting for us, she just clammed up and refused to say a word. I vaguely remember sweeping the pieces of a broken bottle from Father’s room that day. Now it all makes sense,” Amaka said.
“This is a lot of hogwash. I can’t believe I am sitting here listening to all this,” said Uncle Morris.
I got up and straightened my clothes. Uncle Morris had no shame. Even at this crucial time, he could not tell his wife the truth. I started thinking of appropriate ways to seek redress for my mother and embarrass him publicly.
“Aunty May, you have twenty-four hours to make up your mind and apologize to my mother publicly in as dramatic a fashion as your confrontation was, or I will implement my own means of redress,” I said, looking in the direction of the door.
“Ada, I am so confused,” said Aunty May.
“Mummy, there is nothing to be confused about. Ada, please, sit down,” said Amaka.
I sat back in the chair I had just vacated.
“Mummy, do you remember there was a day, many years ago, that you saw some stains on my clothes and thought my period had finally started?” asked Amaka.
“Yes, when it did not continue, I took you to hospital and the doctor said it may have been a false alarm. He suggested some hormonal tests to rule out hormonal imbalance. The result came back normal. You were twelve then,” said Aunty May. “Yes, I remember. But what has that got to do with the issue we are discussing?”
“Amaka!” said Uncle Morris. He looked very pale, like one about to faint. His wife and I gaped at him. Words failed him, and he could not tell his daughter why he was calling her.
“What? Why are you calling me? Why? What do I have to lose by speaking up now? It is because you raped me that my marriage is on the brink of collapse. I don’t have a normal feminine response to intimacy. I cringe out of fear. That is why my husband sent me packing. You are a depraved old man. I hate you!” screamed Amaka.
I was too shell-shocked to move. I had not imagined that this kind of revelation would emerge from our discussion. Aunty May sprang on her husband like a wounded tigress. She held him in a chokehold shouting:
“Shameless man! You will join your brother in eternity today. Is it impossible for the male folk in the Chukwuma family to be faithful to their wives? Could you not exercise some self- control? Ah! I am finished! Under my very roof! Morris!”
I decided my ears were full and it was time to leave. This was an unexpected twist to my confrontation of my uncle. He was down on his knees begging his wife and daughter for forgiveness, when I made a quick exit.