It was one of those nights, when the approaching footsteps of the following day’s troubles pound so loudly against one’s mind that sleep gets frightened and runs away. The day had been a busy one for both of them. He had spent it out shopping with his son. She had spent it scrubbing and mopping. Immediately after the nine o’clock news, the man stood up from his favourite chair, the one that was closest to and perpendicular the television.
‘I’m going in,’ he said.
The woman also stood up. She switched off the television set and escorted their son to his bedroom. When the boy was safely tucked into bed, she went in and changed into her long, flowered nightgown, the one that kept her warm at night even though it looked like the sort of thing an old, white woman in a horror movie might wear. Then she lay beside her husband and turned off the bedside switch. Her eyes had been closed for a long time when she heard a gentle knock on the door.
‘Who is that?’ she asked.
‘It’s me,’ a little voice answered.
‘What is it?’
‘Mummy, please can I come in and see my shoes?’
She decided it would do no harm to let him see the shoes one last time if that would help him fall asleep. But before she could respond, her husband spoke.
‘Come in.’ he said, turning on the switch by his own side of the bed.
The door screeched open and Kingsley tiptoed into the room. His bathroom slippers made a sound as if he was stepping on a rat and causing it to squeak each time he moved. He headed straight for the trunk box where his mother kept her expensive wrappers and important documents. The white cardboard box was still on top, where his father had left it after they returned from the Bata shoe shop earlier that day. He lifted the cover, brought out the contents, removed his feet from the bathroom slippers, and slotted them into the brown, leather shoes. With his eyes on his feet, he took two steps forward and three steps backwards. Then he raised his right foot to his face, smelt it, and smiled.
‘Okay, it’s enough,’ Augustina said. ‘Go and sleep so you can wake up early for church tomorrow morning.’
Kingsley removed the shoes and put them back in the box. Before replacing the cover, he spread the thin, white sheet of protective paper across and tucked it in on every side. His actions were tender, as if he were changing the diapers of his firstborn son.
‘Daddy, goodnight. Mummy, goodnight.’
Both parents grunted responses.
As soon as the door shut behind him, Augustina concluded that a problem shared is a problem half-solved and decided to say what it was that had been weighing on her mind.
‘What time did they say they’re coming?’ she asked.
A casual observer might have assumed that she was sleep-talking. But the husband knew exactly what the wife was talking about. In fact, the probability was very high that he had also been thinking along those same lines.
‘They didn’t say exactly,’ he replied, without changing his position on the bed. He was lying facing one direction with his back towards her, while she was lying facing the other direction with her back towards him. ‘But since it’s Sunday, I imagine they’ll be coming any time after Mass.’
‘Did they say whether they’ll be sleeping over?’
‘They didn’t, but it’s very likely.’
Just then there was another gentle knock on the door.
‘Who’s that?’ she asked.
‘It’s me,’ he replied.
‘What is it?’
‘Mummy, please can I come in and look at my shoes?’
Augustina suddenly felt the strong urge to beat up a child. She sprang up straight in bed and raised her voice.
‘Will you get out and go to your room and sleep! Look, if I come out and meet you there, I’m going to keep flogging you until you fall asleep!’
The sound of rats squeaking as they were being stepped on, rushed away into the opposite direction. Kingsley was due to start primary school on Monday. Earlier that day, his father had taken him to barb his hair, to buy his exercise books, pencils, crayons, schoolbag, and his first pair of school shoes. Ever since they returned from their shopping trip that evening, he had been in to admire and try out the shoes at least one million times.
Augustina lay back in bed and sighed a deep, grave sigh. Her husband understood that her sighing had nothing to do with their son’s irritating behaviour. He turned round and moved closer to her in the bed. He curved himself along the contours of her back, like a spoon against another spoon. Then he tickled her feet with his toes and stroked her hair.
‘Are you letting this thing get to you again?’ he asked, in the sort of voice that Casanovas use when the lights are dim.
Augustina kept quiet. Her muscles remained tense against his body and refused to respond to the tickling, the stroking, or the voice.
‘I’ve told you not to allow these things worry you,’ he continued.
‘Paulinus,’ she replied. There was no corresponding affection in her voice. ‘I have every reason to be worried if your sisters are coming tomorrow. You know how it is whenever any one of them is around. Not to talk of when they’ve all decided to come in a group.’
‘Augustina, listen to me. It doesn’t matter. No matter what they say or how they behave, just remember that it’s all words and intimidation. There’s nothing they can do to you.’
She analysed his logic and fell for it. Straight away, her body switched into relaxation mode. His hands went from her hair to other parts of her body. In a short while, she was transported to another galaxy, and completely forgot about sleep or tomorrow.
After Mass, Paulinus dropped them off at home and returned to church for what Father Mathias had described as a brief men’s meeting. When she finished preparing lunch, there was a loud thumping on the front door, as if the person outside was freezing to death and could not wait to come indoors. Oluchi, her step-sister’s daughter who lived with them, went ahead to check. Augustina murmured a hasty Hail Mary and followed at a safe distance behind her. Oluchi looked out of the front window and saw who it was.
‘Ma Kingsley, they’re here!’ she yelled quietly, like a child who was alerting his siblings that it was time to put away the toys and pretend as if they were reading, because their authoritarian father had just driven in.
Augustina adjusted the wrapper on her waist while Oluchi unlocked the door. Five of Paulinus’ sisters poured in one after the other. Each one aspired to a higher standard of obesity than the previous one.
‘Welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome,’ Augustina greeted.
It did not matter if there had been twenty of them arriving at the same time. Experience had taught her that it was wiser to apportion each in-law with their own individual greeting, so as to avoid being accused of ignoring any particular person. Augustina curtsied slightly and relieved the three oldest of their overnight bags while Oluchi collected from the remaining two. They took the bags into Kingsley’s bedroom and deposited them in a corner. Oluchi stayed behind to put a clean sheet on the bed while Augustina rejoined her guests in the living room. They were already seated when she entered. Kingsley had come out to greet them and was perched on the laps of the youngest. Augustina kept turning to look at him, as if she expected the woman to pour a vial of arsenic down his throat when no one was looking.
‘Where’s Pa Kingsley?’ the eldest woman asked.
Augustina stooped slightly and smiled like a dedicated better half.
‘Sorry, he’s not around right now. He stayed behind to attend a meeting in church but he should be back very soon.’
‘Didn’t he know we were coming?’
‘He knows. That’s why I said that he should be back anytime soon. Probably within the next thirty minutes.’
The woman looked around at her sorority and twisted her lips and shrugged, as if she was gradually getting used to whatever surprises life threw at her.
‘Would you like me to offer you anything while you’re waiting?’ Augustina asked. ‘I just made some garri and we have oha and ukazi soups.’
‘It’s not food that we came to eat,’ another sister replied. ‘And it’s Pa Kingsley that we came to see, not you.’
‘By the way,’ yet another one said, ‘why is Kingsley losing weight? Has he not been eating well?’
‘He’s been eating well,’ Augustina replied, clenching her teeth after answering and restraining less civil words from bursting forth. ‘I don’t think he’s losing any weight.’
‘Kingsley,’ the woman asked, ‘has your mother been giving you all your meals?’
The little boy, who had a heart that was as pure as the heart of most little boys, nodded innocently.
The woman looked at him again with eyes furrowed and head tilted, as if she was trying to make sure that what she was seeing in front of her was actually there.
The one thing Augustina would not stand was people poking fiery darts at her through her son. She had started contemplating whether the flower vase on the television set, or the framed wedding photograph of her and Paulinus on the wall, or the stabilizer on the floor beneath the television, would make the best weapon against this woman’s head, when Paulinus walked in. He beamed at his sisters.
‘Welcome,’ he greeted.
‘Pauly, good afternoon,’ they responded, standing up and hugging him one after the other.
Then they sat down. One of them had sat in his favourite chair by the television set, and Augustina thought he looked really awkward sitting somewhere else. She called Oluchi and asked her to take Kingsley away.
‘Give him a snack then let him stay there and play with you,’ she added.
Augustina knew from timeless experience that a snack was all that anybody could get into the boy’s system for now. Kingsley always found it difficult to eat a proper meal when he was not sitting with his father at the dining table.
As soon as the pleasantries were over and everybody had ascertained that everybody else was fine, the eldest sister proceeded to the main agenda. She leaned forward in her chair and adjusted the folds of her wrapper around her legs.
‘Pauly,’ she said with her head facing his but with her eyes focused on the space beside his ear, ‘you know that right from day one, none of us supported this your marriage to Augustina. But you closed your ears. Me, I never hid my mouth and all the things I said that time are on record.’
She cleared her throat and swallowed, to make way for the memories she was about to regurgitate.
‘I said it that time that university degree doesn’t matter; nobody uses degree to cook soup or to bear children. I said it that she’s too skinny. I said that she wouldn’t be able to have children because she didn’t have any womb inside that body.’
With each new point she listed, she touched the index finger of her right hand against a finger of her left.
‘Now, see what’s happening. Exactly what I warned you about. How can I come into my eldest brother’s house and instead of the noise of children running about the place, everywhere is so quiet? Look at.’
She swept her hand in the air, careful to cover every nook and cranny of the room.
‘After all these years,’ she continued, ‘it’s only one child that you people have. Pauly, we just said we should come and talk to you to do something about it before it becomes too late.’
Augustina had heard several versions of this same speech at different points in her marriage. Today, the woman had even been lenient. In the past, she had been referred to as an educated broomstick. At another time, she had been referred to as a bamboo stick that would break into two at the slightest push. She listened on and wondered what else was new.
The second eldest sister took over.
‘Like Ada was saying, we don’t want it to get too late. Unfortunately, you married quite late and you’re not growing any younger. You don’t have to wait until all your hair has turned grey and all your teeth have fallen out before you know you should do something about the situation.’
She switched to a more soothing tone.
‘Pauly, we understand that you’re busy with your job at the ministry and that you might not have the time to sort things out for yourself so we’ve decided to help.’
She put a full stop to her speech and handed the baton back to the eldest sister. The exchange was carried out smoothly, and Ada sat forward in her chair. She looked briefly at Augustina and turned away her face. That instant was enough for Augustina to catch the dark light of loathing that glinted from her eyes.
‘We’ve found two girls in the village that you can choose from,’ she announced. ‘We’ve already spoken with their mothers and they have accepted the idea. We want you to come down to the village with us tomorrow morning and have a look at them so that you’ll know which one you want to chose.’
Augustina received the communiqué with uncharacteristic calm. Apart from the fact that her spirit and all her reflexes were numb, she knew that a woman who could not produce children deserved whatever treatment she received from her in-laws. So far, her only saving grace had been the fact that Paulinus was standing by her. Several women had received even worse treatment from their husbands and in-laws combined. There were cases where the wife came back home from the market and found another woman installed in the house. In this case, at least they had chosen to give her advance notice.
Paulinus, on the other hand, reacted with uncharacteristic ferocity. He slammed a fist on his knee, sprang up from the ill-fitting chair, and clenched his teeth till the two white rows almost merged into one thin, white line.
‘I’ve heard what you people have to say. Now, would you please get up and leave my house.’
He spoke in a low voice that still managed to startle everybody. But Ada recovered quickly. She jumped out of her chair, stationed her hands on her waist, and poked her face into his nose.
‘Paulinus,’ she said, ‘it’s not today you started allowing your education to confuse you. No matter what, every man needs children to carry his name. Every man! God forbid, but what if something was to happen to Kingsley? That means your name will be vanished forever.’ She snapped her thumb and middle finger for effect. ‘Just like that. Is that what you want? Eh? Is that what you want?’
‘Look,’ Paulinus replied. ‘There’s no point making a scene here. I’ve told you that I’ve heard. What else do you want me to say?’
‘That Is Not What We Came To Hear,’ she replied, pronouncing each word distinctly, as if she were reciting the title of a poem. ‘For the past how many years, that’s all we’ve been hearing from you. We’ve been talking and talking and all you say is that you’ve heard. Now it’s time to act. Do you think we have nothing better to do than to be worrying about you? Meanwhile, you, the one that is inside the pit of shit, you’re not even bothered.’
‘If Papa had been alive,’ another one added, ‘he would have told you the same thing. And Mama as well. Look at the other sons from the other wives, all of them have many children. It’s us that people are laughing at because our own Opara has refused to listen to advice.’
Paulinus roared like King Kong.
‘Will you leave my house right now! All of you, get up and leave! Get up and leave! Now!’
‘Get up let’s go,’ Ada said, beckoning on the others with a motion of her hand as if she were fanning herself. ‘You can chase us away if you want but the actual person you should be chasing is right here with you.’
She gave Augustina the sort of look that one might give a cockroach that had crawled into a part of the cupboard where the broom handle could not reach.
‘Please where did you put our bags?’ she hissed. ‘Let’s start going before your husband insults us some more.’
Apparently, Oluchi had been stationed at her usual eavesdropping position by the kitchen door. As soon as Augustina stood up to go and get the bags, she appeared and accompanied her to the bedroom. Inside, Augustina suddenly realized how fatigued she was. She sat down on the bed while Oluchi took the bags out to the women. She heard the front door slam shut and knew that they had left. She heard the door of their bedroom slap against the frame and knew that Paulinus had gone inside to cool off. Then the door in front of her opened slowly and Kingsley walked in. He sat down beside her on the bed without speaking, and she knew that he also had heard. It was at that point that she broke down and started crying. The boy placed his arm as far as it would go around her waist and started crying as well.
Oluchi came back inside the room and saw them. She carried Kingsley in her arms and patted his back until he calmed down. Then she waited till Augustina’s sobs had decreased.
‘Ma Kingsley,’ she whispered confidentially, like a rumour monger, ‘there’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you but I wasn’t sure how to say it.’
‘The last time I was at home, there’s something my mother and Aunty Amaechi them were all talking about.’
Augustina perked up her ears.
‘They said that because of all these problems your husband’s people have been having since their father died, that maybe somebody from their family has padlocked your womb and thrown away the keys so that you won’t be able to have children.’
Augustina reflected on this revelation.
Shortly after Kingsley was born, her father-in-law had died, leaving behind some few plots of empty land and cassava farms which his living seven-sons-and-eleven-daughters-from-three-wives had fought vigorously to put inside their pockets. The wrangling had produced such bile. And there were suspicions of some family members engaging diabolical means to frustrate others into relinquishing their interest in the inheritance. From what her step niece was now telling her, it appeared that her family regarded her infertility as the outcome of one of those evil machinations.
The informant continued.
‘Ma Kingsley, I think you should do something about it. There are some native doctors in Ohaozara who I hear are very good when it comes to unlocking people’s wombs. Maybe you should speak to Pa Kingsley so that both of you can go there and see one of them together.’
Augustina looked up and saw the sincerity in her niece’s eyes. Obviously, even though the girl had been staying with them for the past three years, collecting school fees regularly from Paulinus and going to school every day from their house, she still had no idea the sort of people she was living with. All it would take for her and all her belongings to fly through the window and out into the street that evening, was for Paulinus to hear the words she had just spoken.
Eventually, it happened when everybody was least expecting it. A few months after Kingsley’s sixth birthday, Augustina took in with Godfrey. Eugene followed a year after and Charity came last. Then the same mysterious issues resurfaced and her womb closed shop forever.