Let me tell you a story. It’s about a war. This war is not the type fought with guns and machetes. It is a family type. A silent war. The type fought in the heart. It began long before I was formed.
“THE WAY THE BUILDING WAS SPREAD OUT, at first glance it appeared as if it were located in our compound, if you were standing outside the back gate looking into the yard, something I think made Papa’s heart happy. He had always had a soft spot for Mazi Okoli’s only son.
‘If you want, we can go inside and have a look. I have my own keys to the house. Mazi keeps losing his bunch so Ekene decided I should have a set with me for safe keeping – the cost of replacing the keys keeps rising with each loss.’
I told Papa I’d fetch them from the bedroom. When I entered the room, I was shocked to see that Mama’s clothes and belongings were nowhere to be found. Mama’s things used to be everywhere in their bedroom, even after she’d stopped sleeping in it. In the past, there would have been several abada wrappers, a special blouse made with georgette fabric, or a pile of ichafu somewhere on the shelf. But now there was nothing to suggest she had ever been a part of this space. It was bare of her. Even the black-and-white photograph of her and Papa when they were still courting was missing from the wall on which it had lived for years.
After going through several bunches of keys in the drawer Papa had told me to look in, I found one with a keyring of the letter ‘E’ and a piece of red cloth tied around the key holder to differentiate it from the rest.
As I was about to close the drawer, I saw a photograph hidden underneath the keys. It was of Papa, Mama, Sister Adaora, Jefferson and baby Lincoln sitting on Papa’s lap. Mama had a beautiful bag on her lap and her hair was plaited in long tight strands intertwined with thread. This was all before Nneora and I had been born. They were all smiling at the camera. Papa’s smile was the brightest and you could see why – not only was he married to the love of his life amid major opposition from her family, but she had given him three beautiful children. But then something had gone wrong and shattered whatever it was that had held it all together.
Ekene’s house looked even better on the inside than it did from the exterior. A lounge at the entrance led to the first sitting room and, from that, a sunken sitting room. It appeared that all the interiors were imported, and the corner of the largest sitting room looked like a mini warehouse heaped with wrapped cartons full of bathroom and kitchen vanities as well as plumbing and tap heads. A huge chandelier was hanging from the ceiling.
‘This had to be put up with the cementing of the ceiling, according to the builders, because it will be too heavy for the ceiling if done otherwise,’ Papa said. I nodded in agreement because I couldn’t imagine how else it could have been done. Although it looked like it would take down the house with it if it ever were to fall.
After touring the ground floor of the house, we headed upstairs to the bedrooms. There were six bedrooms, all with en suite bathrooms and ceiling-to-floor wardrobes. According to Papa, another sitting room just off the first-floor landing would serve as the meeting space or prayer room for all the residents of the house.
‘Ekene really outdid himself here, Papa – it’s such a magnificent house.’
‘Yes, he did. That boy has shown signs of greatness from a very young age. When he completes this house, he will be returning with his wife and children for the grand opening.’
“‘Every single prophet keeps saying the same thing: the secret must be revealed before I can conceive. I think it’s about time.’”
‘He has a wife and even children? I didn’t know that.’ ‘Don’t worry, you are not age mates. I’m sure Nneora or Jefferson knows about them.’
‘Lincoln …’ I muttered, stealing a quick look at Papa’s face. Papa should have said Lincoln and Nneora, but his denial of Lincoln’s existence had widened as the years had progressed. With Ekene and Lincoln both closer in age, it was only natural to expect that Papa would mention Lincoln in the context of what he had said. Jumping straight to Jefferson was not only absurd but worrying. It was like he regretted siring Lincoln. My mind shifted to the old family portrait of Papa smiling with baby Lincoln on his lap.
As I left for Awka that evening, for the first time in a long while, I did not worry about Papa and how he would survive. He seemed to have found himself a new means of keeping himself happy between Chief Aforjulu and Ekene’s largesse.
As usual, the gate to Sister Adaora’s block of flats was bolted in place. I slipped my hand through an opening to unhook it, smiling as I realised some things never changed in the sleepy town of Awka. Sister Adaora’s front door was wide open, which I did not find strange. Awka was always humid during this time of the year, and I knew from my time living there that Sister Adaora would open the door to let whatever breeze she could into the flat. What was strange, though, was that there was no one in the sitting room. If the front door was open, Sister Adaora always insisted someone should be in the sitting room. It had undergone a bit of a makeover but not as extensively as our house in Iruama. The old bookshelf in the corner of the room had been replaced with a bigger one holding thicker books. One item that used to be conspicuous was missing – the wedding portrait of a rarely smiling Uncle Ikemefuna that used to hang on the wall next to Sister Adaora’s. Hers was still hanging in place.
Hearing Sister Adaora’s voice coming from her bedroom, I headed towards the door, but stopped before knocking when she said: ‘Mama, it’s been more than seven years now. Every single prophet keeps saying the same thing: the secret must be revealed before I can conceive. I think it’s about time.’
‘Adaora nwam, please,’ said Mama, ‘we have to still wait a bit, o. Now is not the right time. Lincoln is just settling in in South Africa and Jefferson is still going through his own issues. Nneora is my only child without impending doom over her head like a cloud. Nwam, biko, now is not the right time. Let’s wait a bit, o. Let the dust with Jefferson settle first, please. You hear?’
For the first time, I couldn’t stop myself from eavesdropping on Mama and Sister Adaora’s conversation because what they were talking about was as intriguing as it was daunting. I wasn’t sure if I’d heard what they were saying correctly. I stood transfixed behind the door leading to Sister Adaora’s room. She was telling Mama something I would never want to remember. And Mama was replying and providing suggestions to something that did not make sense. There were intermittent releases of hisses and outbursts of disgust. It was as if what they were talking about was being spoken about in this manner for the first time. Like a lid had been placed on it for years and now, seemingly out of necessity, the Pandora’s Box had been opened.”
Extracted from Glass House by Chinenye Emezie, out now.
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