The Defence Attorney hurried into the court room. It was nine – thirty a.m. He heaved a sigh of relief on realizing that the court was not yet in session for he knew that nothing ruined the reputation of a lawyer more than lateness. His case was quite peculiar, for it was not just that he valued his reputation, but above all else, he was a man of many principles.
It was the day for the court’s verdict. He had worked so hard on this case but he knew his chances were very slim. As the case proceeded to trial, he could literally feel the noose tightening on his client’s neck. Justice Chinyere had made sure of this, for despite the presumption of innocence, she had adjudged his client guilty. And he knew, because he saw it in her eyes.
As the Judge walked in, a bead of sweat broke on his forehead and with it came a quite conspicuous frown. There was no gainsaying, he was scared.
“Believe in the power of God,” the tiny voice in his head said.
“The accused person,” Justice Chinyere started, paused for effect, then continued “Is hereby found guilty for the offence of forgery and cheating, both criminalized under section 51 and section 312 respectively of the Nigerian penal code and as such, he shall be exposed to the full wrath of the law, in order to serve as a glaring deterrent to those already toeing or about to toe this unruly and wanton path of fraud, for it is our sacred duty to curb the growing menace of crime by dispassionately applying the law. Therefore, by the power vested in me, I sentence you George Umahi to 12 years imprisonment, with hard labour.”
Yet, it was as he feared; for one’s belief is immaterial in fate’s decisions. He had anticipated this moment. He had rehearsed the false bravado he would assume a couple of times in his mind. And now, at the decisive moment, the traitor – his courage – betrayed him.
He couldn’t bear to look at the dock where grim looking police men had converged to lead his client away. He couldn’t even hear the voices of the people around him for despite the sympathy on their faces, he knew that beneath that facial expression they revelled in his downfall.
Outside the court house, the sun shone that bright yellow colour of hope and he walked mechanically to his car, sweating from the sun’s intense heat and clicked the key. The car beeped in response and he opened the door. He threw the file and his brief case on the passenger seat, and then shut the door behind him. He tried the ignition. The car didn’t yield. He tried four more times and gave up in exasperation.
He climbed out of the car and paced around, thinking.
‘This would mean walking,’ he thought. He needed the walk anyway.
He had lost three cases in a row. It was a coincidence, but when they pile up like that it becomes proof, proof of incompetence. But he was sure it was not his fault. Maybe it was just ill fortune.
Justice Chinyere had promised them fairness when she first assumed office. Since then, all he could see was one injustice after the other following sequentially as if in an endless string of corruption. The first injustice was sealed, when Joseph Kuma – a notorious old wig – won a case where all the legal odds were clearly against him. Every lawyer in court that day had no doubt that Justice Chinyere had unceremoniously joined the long list of judges in Joseph Kuma’s pocket. Joseph Kuma was forty years at the bar, he was not particularly a good lawyer but he was quite notorious for his dubiousness and ability to cut corners. His network was vast and extended as far as the Supreme Court, yet the SANship kept evading him. Rumour had it that he had applied on four occasions and didn’t make it. The reason for this, nobody knew.
He dialled Nnedi’s number. She answered at first ring.
“Hello Honey,” he said.
“Dim oma,” she teased.
“I won’t be coming back early today. Car trouble.”
“Are you ok? What happened?”
“’Am fine,” he replied trying to avoid more questions.
“How did the case go?” She persisted.
“I’ll explain when I come home. See you.” He concluded.
There was a brief pause.
“Alright sweetie, be safe.” The line went dead.
He took out his brief case and locked the car. He walked a short distance and then flagged down a cab to the Abuja Federal High Court, Maitama, to file a suit against Keznik Co Ltd for his Client Kingsway Textile Industry and then he went to Kubwa for a meeting with Professor Dauda (SAN) at his Chamber Dauda and Cromwell.
Fixing the car took longer than he expected. The mechanic said it was the brain box that was the trouble at first, and then he said it was the battery then after some time he said it was the oil. He sounded like he was testing theories when he knew what the problem really was. ‘He is a rogue and deserves to be jailed’, he thought, but was too tired to argue, so he paid up.
By 8:00pm he was driving home. The traffic train wasn’t crawling today and he couldn’t have been more grateful as he sped the Nnamdi Azikiwe express, even though the AC in his car was hell bent on compounding his distress, so the windows of the car were wound down. He could literally feel all sorts of dangerous gas seeping into the car but maybe it was just in his mind. This fear was the surreptitious effect of the seminar on the effects of air pollution he had attended last month. He occupied his mind with the street lights that adorned the road. They had the appearance of a thousand large amber lit fire-flies, flying in snaking unison into the black horizon. They were Abuja’s bright legacy.
As he neared Gwarinpa, his phone rang. He ignored it at first. It had become a policy of recent that anyone who called (with the exception of his wife for whom he had a special ringtone) and couldn’t call back a second time should forget it. It rang a second time. He ignored it still; it had to be an emergency for him to risk highway accident. When it rang the third time he picked it without looking at it.
“Hello,” he said gingerly.
“Idiot!” A pause, he tried to process the voice.
“So you no longer answer your calls,” said Matthew and he smiled in recognition.
Matthew had been his best friend throughout their campus days. He had been his best man when he married Nnedi and they were still good Friends.
“How body?” Matthew asked.
“My brother, boys are not smiling.”
“I just finished from work and decided to have a drink, can you come?” He asked eagerly. “The usual place” he added with an emphasis on the place.
“No, I’m sorry I have to be home with Nnedi.”
“Come on,” Matthew pleaded. “Jude is coming too.”
“Sorry, I can’t make it.”
“I am asking you to come have fun. It is not a fucking marriage proposal.”
“Ok, I will be there,” he said finally and at that diverted and drove through Wuse, zone 2. As he made a left turn past Nouakchott Street, and then proceeded forward till he arrived at the Marquise.
Some minutes later they all sat at a round wooden table drinking scotch and listening to dull music.
“So how was today?” Matthew asks in between a mouthful of chicken.
“Good,” He replies quickly, as if trying to dissuade conversation.
“The way you say good sometimes sounds suspicious,” Jude chipped in jovially. Then a slim dark – skinned woman wearing a blue t-shirt and a skirt that seemed to have been specially designed to project the outlines of her luscious buttocks approached them and asked whether she could get them anything else. Matthew ordered more chicken and Jude more scotch.
As Jude poured himself a generous shot, the sound of fluid meeting glass was soothing and so, in his conscious subconscious; he heard the loud voice of the court clerk.
“The first case we have today is suit no: FCT 30/7/10/008, the case of the Federal Republic of Nigeria v. George Umahi and ors.”
Justice Chinyere then adjusted her spectacles and looked down at the pew. There stood a burly lawyer with a prominent pot belly that stood out aggressively as if daring Justice Chinyere to question the legality of its protuberance. His suit was well tailored. The black gown draped over his shoulders, which had almost turned grey and the old threadbare wig on his head all constituted something of a medal of honour to lawyers who were determined to show off to everyone who cared to pay attention that they had been at the bar for a very long time. Amidst all these, he was charming. This may have accounted for the reason why most of his clients were wealthy women. A fiat had been obtained from the Attorney-General by one of his wealthy clients for him to represent the prosecution.
“My lord”, he started in a queer and arrogant tone, “I am Joseph Kuma for the prosecution and appearing with me are Lazarus Mwana and Claire Nzeogwu.”
Joseph Kuma took his seat and then it was his turn. He stood.
“My lord, I am Thomas Okeke, Esq., for the defence”.
He resumed his seat while Joseph Kuma stood. “My lord my first witness is the Deputy Superintendent of police, Mr. Adams Zebudiah”.
The witness was called forward and the oath administered.
“What is your name?” Joseph Kuma asked, after he was seated in the witness box for he claimed to be in recovery from an unmentioned ailment.
“Adams Zebudiah”, the witness replied.
“What do you do for a living?” Joseph Kuma continued.
“I am a police officer,” Mr Adams replied, and then added “The Deputy Superintendent of police, Abuja, Zone 7.” As he said this, his chest rose slightly.
“Mr. Adams,” Joseph Kuma called and looked slightly in the direction of the accused at the dock.
“Have you ever seen this man before?”
“Yes I have.”
“Who is he?”
“He is George Umahi, former employee of JUPEC Oil and Gas Co ltd. He was arrested for falsifying certain documents enabling him and three others who are currently at large to gain financial benefits, and I was the investigating police officer on his case.”
“How did you come to this knowledge?”
“Through the statements he made at the station.”
Joseph kuma’s face brightened. He fished out a plain white sheet now defiled by ink scribbling and asked.
“Is this the statement you were referring to?”
“Yes it is”.
He then handed over the statement to him for clarification.
“My lord,” Thomas said suddenly when Joseph Kuma had resumed his seat.
“Can counsel communicate with his client?”
“Yes he may,” said Justice Chinyere uninterestedly.
He walked to George Umahi, conversed with him silently and returned to his seat. After some time he stood in objection to the statement being taken into evidence.
“My lord, my client has intimated me that he was forced to write the statement.” He said and at that Joseph Kuma was furious. Justice Chinyere’s expression seemed to betray a similar sentiment. She turned to face George Umahi.
“Did you write the statement of your own volition?”
“No!” came the reply
Justice Chinyere then turned to Thomas
“It is clear that counsel for the defence is conniving with his client to lengthen this case.” She said coldly.
He restrained the urge to stand and tell her that she had no right to question his client in court, not in an adversarial system of Justice.
“My lord,” Joseph Kuma started, “the handwriting is clear and consistent. Someone under duress could not have written with such clarity.” He argued.
“Indeed,” Justice Chinyere echoed. “However,” she added and continued, “In the interest of Justice, we cannot proceed on this case upon evidence that is alleged to have been obtained through duress unless counsel for the prosecution can furnish contrasting evidence to support otherwise.” And then she paused for some time. When Joseph Kuma, glaring furiously at her, said nothing, she looked again in his direction.
“Thomas,” She called him for the first time. “What do you suggest the court do?” she asked mockingly
“My lord,” He began, “I believe the appropriate procedure would be to conduct a trial within trial by virtue of section 29(3) of the evidence Act, 2011 and the strength of the authority of the case of Akpa v. state.” He concluded with the timeless confidence that only anticipated victory can offer.
“God! Manchester United players are idiots!” shouted Matthew suddenly. The court room vanished. He looked in his direction. Matthew was looking at his blackberry and cursing under his breath. He was never lucky with his hobby, wagering. Once he bet twenty thousand naira for ten matches and lost it all.
“Can you imagine? He said. “Can you imagine?” He repeated again.
“No, I can’t imagine” said Jude disinterestedly.
He told him any way. “They played against Aston villa in their home and lost, with three goals!” When he was done he looked from him to Jude half expecting a reaction but he found none.
“You guys are sad people,” he said in resignation. “I don’t even know why I hang out with you two”.
“Probably because you don’t have any other friends,” said Jude.
“Sorry what did you say,” Matthew asked after some time. There was silence at the table, and then they all burst into laughter.
“About the match,” Jude started. “I never doubted the outcome; they were never players to begin with.”
Matthew who was in the middle of a shot of vodka took it all in one gulp. He squeezed his face as the liquor burned down his throat. “But how can a person who has never played recognize a player when he sees one?” Matthew replied with a note of sarcasm.
Thomas took another swig of scotch and looked at his wrist watch; 8:30pm.
“Matt, Jude, I’ve got to run.” He said as he rose.
“But you have not touched your chicken,” said Jude imploringly.
“I am not hungry,” He replied and made for the door. As he opened the door he hears Matthew in the distance telling Jude, “You didn’t have to tell him, you know.” He smiled and made for the car.
The journey home was short-lived when he got a call from his sister.
“Brother, Nnedi is in labour,” she said and the rest was static. He was already driving into Gwarimpa when she called. He made a left around Aminu Kano crescent and took the Aliko Dangote lane to the University of Abuja Teaching Hospital just around the corner.
He arrived an hour later, tottering under the weight of anxiety and fatigue. He was angry with himself for not being there for her when the time came.
Jane embraced him when she saw him. “She is inside,” she said.
“Why didn’t you call me immediately she came here?”
“Aunty Nnedi said we shouldn’t bother you, that you were busy.”
Here was his Nnedi, always putting his interest before hers. He walked quickly towards the ward but was suddenly blocked by a frigid nurse who insisted he wait outside.
He paced the corridors in frustration and occasionally ran his hands over his head. His patience bars were fast depleting. “She is alright,” he told himself, but he didn’t believe it. He was afraid for Nnedi and for himself too. Nnedi was a vital part of him and if anything happened to her, he would never be the same again. He had always known he loved her a little too much. More than was expected of Nigerian men to their wives. It was in the dishes he prepared, the laundry and the frequent house-cleaning he did that he saw this. He paced for some time, then he walked to the nurse and asked to see her but she again said he couldn’t see her. He waited for some time that seemed like forever, and then asked the nurse again. She said he couldn’t see her. When he asked her the fifth time she got irritated and asked him whether he was the first person to have a wife in labour. At that point his patience ran out. He walked past her and marched towards the ward unrestrained.
With the look he had on his face, any attempt to stop him would have been a mistake. At the end of the corridor, just a door away from where she was, a doctor emerged and blocked him. The doctor explained that everything was fine and that he should come over to the office for a little discussion, but he felt something was wrong. He could see the untold distress in the doctor’s eyes and he could not hear any sound from inside the theatre except the slow shuffling of feet.
As curiosity overpowered him, fuelled with fear, he quickly brushed past the Doctor and looked into the room. His world came crumbling down. He opened his mouth to cry out but no sound came. A hot dagger pierced his very soul. He saw her lifeless face at peace, as if she was merely taking a nap. But she was dead. She was gone.
“I am sorry sir. We lost her. We did everything we could but she had lost too much blood. She had objected to the blood transfusion therapy on account of her faith and specifically requested that we should not let you know about it…”
“And the baby?”
“Am afraid we lost both of them.”
But he did not hear him. He lurched towards his wife and found himself falling, falling into darkness… He was barely conscious when he hit the floor.
x x x
“Nnedi! Nnedi!” He called softly as he opened his eyes, hoping that she would respond sleepily beside him and he would heave a heavy sigh of relief, realizing that it had been a dream. But she did not respond. He tried to sit up and became dimly aware of his mother sitting beside him.
“Nne, you’re here.”
“Yes my son, I’m here.”
He looked round the room. It was his bedroom and he still had on his work cloths but there was still no sign of Nnedi. Certainly she could not have allowed him to sleep in his work clothes. She was overly meticulous about such things.
“Where is Nnedi?”
“My son, she is gone.”
“She has left for work?”
“No my son, she is dead.”
He sat up. The events of yesterday came rushing into his head. The nightmare was true after all.
“You must eat, my son, you look very weak.”
Was she mad? How could he eat without Nnedi? But he said nothing. He just kept staring at the wall with a vacant expression on his face, for he saw nothing and felt nothing. A languid vacuity had filled him.
“She is gone,” he mumbled to himself.
He tried to think but no thoughts came. Thinking was impossible. “My Nnedi is gone” kept throbbing in his head. It was all he heard, all he could understand.
There was no pain, no feeling, just a void, and an unpleasant emptiness.
His mother sat beside him. As she placed her arm on his shoulders, two drops of tears rolled down his cheeks. She then wrapped her huge arms around him while he cried. She looked at him as he shed his cloak of manliness and became her charming little boy again. ‘He will get over it,’ she thought.
x x x
As an age long adage goes, time, like a master physician, is capable of healing all wounds. In time he got over her death. As days passed into weeks and weeks into months, the vacuity slowly slipped out of his mind, but his dependence on Mama grew. She had seen to everything at the burial and aided him in making a lot of decisions but above all else, she alone truly understood. In her courage, wisdom and unswerving strength he had found solace.
He had resumed work and his normal activities again, although they no longer seemed normal. He put all his energy and love into his work and revelled in it. His legal materials, articles and law reports became his close friends. He still hung out with Jude and Matthew because their endless chattering afforded a source of release to him, but they knew he was getting more withdrawn.
It was exactly one year after Nnedi’s death, the day George Umahi’s appeal was heard and allowed by the Court of Appeal, that he received a distress call from his sister that a hit and run car had knocked down Mama.
He boarded the first flight to Lagos the next day. At the hospital the Doctor told him, without mincing words, that she would not make. She had suffered fatal internal injuries and her organs were already failing. She lay on the white bed with her eyes closed when they finally let him see her, with strict instructions not to trouble her.
She opened her eyes. They were still the brilliant colour of understanding he remembered but the lustre in her eyes were gone.
She looked at him. And it seemed she smiled but her face did not move. He could see a trail of blood trickling down her mouth. He quickly cleaned it with his handkerchief.
As he sat down beside her, she looked at him again; this time there was really a shadow of a smile on her face. All her wrinkles were gone and she looked surprisingly young again.
He had insisted she retire to Anambra but she refused. At 65 she refused to abandon the hustle and bustle of Lagos.
“If I had insisted a little more, maybe this would not have happened.” He thought.
“Obiano,” came her voice, astoundingly clear.
“I am sorry everything is happening together. I am very sorry to contribute to your pain, but my son, life is always so for death is a bad reaper.” she paused.
The blood seemed to choke her. A lump rose in his throat as he watched her grapple with death, as if trying to buy a little more time to spend with her only son. Again he wiped the blood from the side of her mouth with trembling hands.
“Obiano, when your father died, he gave me a note that brought me hope. I hope it will bring you as much comfort as it did me. You will find it inside my diary at…” She tried to say more but choked again. Then she sighed and closed her eyes as death shook her and she let go. It was over.
Nnedi had gone and now, Mama was gone too.
Later that evening, he sat on Mama’s bed, fondling the old piece of paper he found inside her diary. It had taken him some time to find the diary. The piece of paper contained an old English poem about the phoenix written by Cynewulf. It read;
Just so after death,
Through the lord’s might,
Souls together with body
will journey handsomely adorned,
Just like the bird,
With noble perfumes- into abundant joys
where the sun,
Glistens radiantly, above the multitudes in heaven’s city…
x x x
He didn’t want her kept at the morgue while he lived his life, hoping and praying that the financial resources to arrange her burial would come. He wanted her to be laid to rest as soon as was feasible and yet he was determined to give her a befitting burial. It was the last respect he owed her. His uncles and cousins were very sympathetic, but they were staunch misers, so their feigned sympathies never translated into anything material, let alone money.
He listened with rapt attention, while Godfrey, one of his cousins, told him that he couldn’t make it to the burial and then he remembered how Mama had sold one of her priced ‘George’ to pay his school fees when he could not afford it. She didn’t have money but he was family. “The least he could do was to pay her homage,” he thought. The thought got him angry. But some minutes later he remembered that Mama would not have wanted him to keep malice with family.
After great contemplation and the absence of other options, he took a loan from Jude and gave the elders, his relatives and the priest a date.
And on May 1, 2011, he stood beside the grave. His back glistened with sweat and his palms had blisters. He raised the digger again and let it hit the unyielding red earth, and repeated the process until the earth yielded. As he stood panting from fatigue, suddenly red earth struck his back. He looked in the direction of the diggers around him. They all kept working. They took no notice of what had transpired.
Some minutes later he went in and got dressed.
The priest came later, with a procession of altar boys, four acolytes, one bearing incense, and another a long wooden Crucifix with gold rims at the edges. Behind them was the choir singing a dirge, some church members and a crowd of sympathetic villagers who had benefited in one way or the other from Mama. The priest wore a white robe with gold linings and carried a spray bottle from which he sprinkled holy water on the coffin the bearers were carrying. After Mama was laid on a platform he began the rites.
When the priest scooped the first piece of earth and threw it in. Matthew let a tear drop from his chin. Then the priest motioned him forward. He came and stood over the grave. He stared down at the coffin for a long time without speaking. There was silence. When he spoke, he said;
“I do not know why it is that you have left…”
A pause that extended for several minutes.
“But I know why it is I am still here. I think it is simply to bear, in a spirited heart, the memories we have shared.”
And as the earth he threw in the grave was compelled by gravity, his eyes became moist. He didn’t look up. He walked face down into the house.
After the burial he forgot the title of Cynewulf’s poem. Whenever people were not trying to offer him their condolences, he would try to remember then give up after some time.
At night when he was done receiving guests, he would go to the veranda to stare at the avocado tree. Jane always, as if on cue, would join him shortly and begin a discussion. She was intent, it seemed, on discussing other matters; anything at all that could make their reality less hurtful.
And with the sun’s west bound journey, the mourning soon came to an end and he had to fly back to Abuja, to life.
On arrival he received a rather unexpected call from Theodora Umahi. She sounded very excited. The Supreme Court had allowed the appeal. George Umahi was free.
On getting home, the stale odour of loneliness lingered silently. He drew the curtains and unpacked his bag, then checked his dairy. The next day was the ‘Keznik Co ltd v. Kingsway Textile industry’ case.
In the morning the Phoenix flew across his windows and for an instant shielded him from the sun’s intruding rays. He marvelled at its bright crimson colour when the alarm blared loudly, rousing him from his ethereal peace. Adjusting his eyes to the bright morning, he remembered the title of Cynewulf’s poem; The Phoenix. He had been consumed in the flames of his grief; his newer, better self had now been reborn from the ashes of his fate and he smiled that knowing smile. He was the Phoenix.