The JRB presents an excerpt from a work in progress by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe.
Onyemelukwe’s debut novel, The Son of the House, recently won the Best International Fiction Book Award at the 2019 Sharjah International Book Fair. She is currently working on her second book.
Read the excerpt:
She felt the plane bump as if it would fall through the sky, hurtling down with the thousand screams of mostly brown Nigerian people propelling it, but also a few creamy Asian and Caucasian people. She took in the snores of the passenger in the aisle seat beside her and shook her head as if to clear it of fog, wishing she could sleep too. She hated flying. Even now when she had to do it frequently for work.
Something was wrong. She felt it deep in her brain, her mind, or her gut, this thing that was wrong with the universe. Her mind was restless, couldn’t stay still. But she could not place her finger on it. Her friend Anwuli would say it was like a ghost crawling up your spine. Such a dramatic person, Anwuli, Adanna thought. But that description was apt, a ghost crawling up and down your spine, trying to take what belonged to you.
The last time she had this feeling was when Mummy died. Three years later, even the thought of it sent tiny bolts of shock down her smallish frame, though its power seemed to be fading away as the months passed, like overcurrent tapering away, the bright light of yellow bulbs coming down, down to their new normal.
Adanna did not deal with life by mulling over it and ruminating while chewing cud: Life was about solutions, get up and go, not wasting time. You have to be solution-oriented, she often told the younger lawyers: you are a lawyer, not a judge. So she let herself think about work. The meeting in London had gone well, a juicy package of infrastructure development for the government, a great deal for a Chinese company. And an even better deal for the London firm and their Lagos firm. Lots of USD but also lots of work coming up, she thought.
Everything was good in the office. Or as good as it could be. Since she had become partner three years ago, she still couldn’t bring herself to call the Managing Partner, Mr Augustine, Austin, as Mr Oscar, the Principal Partner, and others did—or anything else but Sir. Mr Oscar, in his occasionally garrulous manner, had let it slip one day that Mr Augustine had not thought her ready for the role of partner—she was too young, and a bit too emotional. Afterwards, she would learn that a survey in the industry had shown them to be the only top tier law firm with only male partners. So, as she joked to Oyibo Pepper, she had become the diversity hire. Who knew that Nigeria was joining the diversity trend? Her delivery must have been Comedy Central-worthy because it never failed to make both she and her husband IK laugh hysterically. The memory of their laughter did not make the tension of testerone-filled meetings dissipate, nor their half yearly quarterly retreats any easier to bear. And when she decided, last year, to seek Silk, Mr Oscar, the only Senior Advocate in the office, acted like she was trying to take away his birthright, as Jacob had done to Esau, cunning, grasping, greedy.
Yet she didn’t mind, she had been prepared to do the work, travelling around the country. Mr Oscar often reminded her that she would need to do several criminal cases, which she had not been used to—trials defending alleged criminals. Never mind, she had wanted to tell him, rubbing his arm and soothing his anxious spirits. Never mind, because when she imagined the three letters SAN beside her name, when she thought about calling Daddy to tell him that she had acquired that much coveted lawyerly title, Senior Advocate of Nigeria, one of the few women that had made it, she knew it would be worth every ounce of energy that she could put into it.
The thought of her father lifted her spirits for a second, and then they climbed down, leaving sadness in their wake.
She had spoken to Amarachi from London, and the excitement in her sister’s voice spilled over the MTN phone line into her hotel room.
‘Daddy is doing well. He has eaten today and was talking to Uchechi about his social studies homework. He was even asking for you.’
Adanna smiled in the plane. Of course, Daddy would ask about his Ada. Was he really doing well, coming out of that gloominess that had encircled him like a dark, heavy blanket since Uncle Nnamdi had passed?
Maybe Amarachi was not being fanciful with her Pentecostal fervor. She had said the same to IK before she left, that Daddy’s forgetfulness seemed to be ebbing and he appeared to be getting back to himself. She heard that inner voice, her mother’s voice, say that wishful thinking was for children. And she shook her head, as if it to shake the voice off. Amarachi insisted that his seeming recovery was due solely to her Pastor’s prayers.
‘I have been using that anointing oil everywhere. Everywhere o,’ Amarachi emphasised. ‘His food, his bathing water, even a drop or two in his drinking water.’
In her hotel room near Liverpool Street Station, a London hotel typical for its small number of square meters and high cost, Adanna had visualised her sister’s face: earnest, her eyebrows up onto their usual home of her forehead, causing said forehead to wrinkle, though not unbecomingly, a mad, fanatic light shining out of the eyes the brows framed, her hands emphasising her statement.
For Daddy to tolerate such nonsense was sufficient for anyone who knew him to know that he was not himself. He couldn’t be.
But she didn’t argue with Amarachi, not then. It was almost God-sent that she had called that morning as Adanna fretted.
That morning, Adanna’s husband, IK, ordinarily an understanding husband, was choosing a most inappropriate time to be obtuse.
‘Daddy is fine. You just enjoy worrying. He is absolutely fine. The erudite professor himself,’ he told his wife. As if Daddy would ever be fine again. In this life, anyway.
‘IK, please be serious. Biko. This is my dad we are talking about. The other day, he forgot his way from the kitchen to the sitting room.’ Adanna did not add that what really bothered her was the strange and unfamiliar domesticity, that a man who had believed firmly in the roles of men and women in the home all his life would choose to take his plates to the kitchen.
Her husband had smiled at her. The way he did when she was about to, as he would say, throw an unnecessary tantrum. Which never failed to make her throw said tantrum.
‘I am going to Brussels for eight days. You are in London for seven days. One week. One week o, and then we are back. What in the world do you think will happen to Daddy in this house in one week?’
A lot, she wanted to say. But she could think of nothing. The cook would be there, making the meals, the house help would do the cleaning, the laundry man would come as usual to pick up dirty clothes on Friday, and the temporary nurse she had brought in would make sure he was fine and that he took his regular walks round the house.
Still, her husband’s reasonableness was infuriating, almost as much as the wry words and mildly amused expression on his face, or the mock weariness in his tall frame.
She hissed, sssshhhhhh, a short sound of exasperation, before she could catch it.
IK did not like hissing, something about his childhood and being told hissing was rude. Adanna often told her husband that her hissing had nothing to do with him. Most times. She only needed an outlet for her frustration, that was all. These days, she tried to catch herself, but like she had told him before, hissing was an involuntary action. Mostly. Not for him, he would say, as if his ability not to hiss was the only measure of discipline.
He frowned now. Predictably.
‘Sorry,’ she said, her obvious irritation cancelling out any meaning in her apology. ‘I’m just worried.
‘You worry too much.’
Exasperation flowed down Adanna’s body. It was always the same. She worried and he said she worried too much.
It was easy for him to say. When she had first noticed the changes after Mummy died, he had said the same: ‘Daddy is fine. Just had a conversation with him about the whole Clinton, Trump campaign. He is firmly backing Clinton. You worry too much.’
That was three years ago. When Daddy was only searching for a word here, a word there, sitting too quietly. ‘He is missing your mom,’ IK would say.
For his part, IK knew that under her steely countenance his wife was a bundle of anxious nerves, each standing on end, waiting for the world to fall apart. True, his father-in-law was in a bad way, but how would worrying solve anything?
In the early days, he would go into the sitting room and hail his father-in-law with his traditional title, ‘Eziafakaego’. Prof would smile at him, even though his response was not as rigorous as it would have been fifteen years before, when IK had first married his first daughter. But so much had changed in three years.
These days, he went to work and came back and climbed the stairs, away from the quietness. He had taken to eating his meals in the sitting room upstairs instead of in the dining room. It was difficult to look over from the dining room and see his father-in-law, the once strong man, staring silently at his favourite channel, CNN, not making any of the dry comments he was wont to make at the antics of the world.
Once, Adanna overheard IK on his phone in the bathroom, telling Somto, his brother, that it was ‘completely strange’ to see his father-in-law sitting there, like a house that had been emptied of its contents, sometimes not recalling who his name or who he was. ‘You remember Prof, you remember how he likes to argue, to talk politics and the Nigerian economy. Now, sometimes he forgets his words in the middle of a heated debate and when you try to bring him back, he just stares at you as if you are from another planet.’
Adanna heard him pause, listening to Somto, and then his response, ‘Nooo, I can’t imagine Daddy like this, he would have begged to die o,’ referring to his own father who had died five years before.
Adanna had imagined him sitting on the toilet, telling stories about her father. And it made her angry, enough to want to burst into the toilet and scream at him. But she held herself and walked back into the bedroom. It was her father’s chi who was trying to disgrace him and embarrass her.
Later, even though they left the conversation there, Adanna worried at it as she went about her day—she was in court for four hours, after which the judge rose without hearing her matter. One of the key reasons she needed to get that silk, she told IK later. At least that way her matter would be heard first. She got into the office and had to rewrite from the scratch a legal opinion badly done the first time by a senior associate who should know better. By the time she saw Amarachi’s number, it was the third time her sister was calling.
‘Hello,’ she tried to keep the irritation from her voice.
‘Fine.’ Did she sound short?
There was pause. ‘I was wondering.’ Another pause.
This time Adanna’s irritation was definitely in her voice. ‘Wondering what?’ It sounded like a bark. ‘Wondering what?’ she repeated, with a deliberate effort at softening her tone.
‘I want Daddy to come to my house for a bit.’
To do what? she almost asked, before she caught herself. It occurred to her that this could be the answer to her prayer, the prayer she had yet to utter, about managing Daddy.
‘OK?’ Amarachi asked.
‘OK. Is he not your father? He can come this weekend. As a matter of fact, I am travelling to London on Sunday for work. So you can pick him up on Friday.’
‘That’s great. I was worried that you would say no. You see, my pastor said that he can pray and anoint him and he will be OK.’
Too bad she had already said yes, Adanna told IK later. It was bewildering to her that a person raised by her parents could speak like her sister. She believed in miracles too, she would not be Nigerian if she did not. But there were some things that might even make God ask, ‘Where is the common sense I gave to you?’
‘Well, you now have an answer to your prayers,’ IK remarked, his tone dry as harmattan. ‘I am sure she can take care of him for one week.’
Adanna ignored her husband’s tone. It was good that Daddy was going to be taken care of. Better family than help.
Another sudden dip woke her from her reverie. When she was a child and she traveled with her father, she would slip her hand into his and her mother would look at them and shake her head. She was always saying that Daddy might spoil her too much, at which Daddy would smile, a conspiratorial smile, and say, ‘Ada mmadu, you are not spoiled, are you?’ Which was enough to drive her mother crazy with irritation.
An unconscious smile was on her face when she heard the sounds of snoring. Gruuuuuu, gruuu, like an old car whose tired engine was being forced to start one last time. It was the passenger in the seat beside her. He had gurgled down red wine each time the hostess smiled past with a tray. And now he was asleep in the middle of watching a movie. She would not be able to get any sleep herself, even in this expensive business class seat. Work, that was the answer. She reached below her seat and drew out her MacBook and, opening her emails, she attempted to drown the feeling in industry.
It worked. She was surprised to hear the captain announce that they would begin their descent into Lagos in thirty minutes. She put away her laptop and tried to take a nap. But she had left it too late. Her mind was awake. She watched the plane plunge dow, roaring into the clouds. She imagined crashing again. Would she text IK her password? Text the kids ‘I love you. Remember, Mummy would be so proud if you went to Harvard or Yale.’
IK always laughed at her, ‘Iron lady like you, scared of dying in an air crash. Yet you still get on every single time.’
The descent into the evening of Lagos was smooth, a misleading prelude to real life in the city. She switched on her phone as soon as the plane touched the ground. A call came in immediately. It was not Ibrahim, the driver. It was Amarachi. Daddy, she thought.
People were beginning to leave the plane. She would not be able to talk properly until she got into the airport, so she decided not to answer. All the way into the humidity of the darkened airport, she could feel her phone vibrating in her handbag.
She dragged her carry-on over the dark, tired looking, terrazzo-like tiles. In a country where everything was colourful—where even dirty drainages had the whites of Styrofoam, the red of Coca Cola cans and the green of algae—who in this world had choosen these awful tiles?
At the stairs, she made the quick decision not to risk the sluggish escalator going down, bearing people as if it, too, was tired of the country. As she got into the queue for the checkpoint, she took out her passport. As if the man behind her could hear her unuttered observation, he grumbled, ‘Every time you come back to Nigeria, this airport reminds you that you should have stayed away.’
‘My brother, negative confession will not get us to the promised land,’ said another man, the fervour of religion flowing out in his voice. He was wearing tall, thick glasses, the Coke bottle ones, giving him the look of a brainiac, the type who would declare himself an atheist. Another case of judging or not judging books by covers, Ada found herself thinking.
‘What should I say, that the heat is not killing me?’ the first man asked, mopping his brow with a white handkerchief.
‘All I am saying is that proclaiming negative words over the country will not help us. Instead let us declare what we want to see rather than what we are seeing,’ the preacher stated.
‘Abeg my brother, let us say the truth as we see it. Even Ghana here, you cannot compare their airport with ours. As if the airport is here to say, ‘Onye ije, welcome to your real life.’’
Some people guffawed with laughter.
Her phone began vibrating again. She took it out. It was Ibrahim, her driver.
‘Madam, I am here.’
‘OK. I am coming out. You can come up to Arrivals. I need to get my suitcase and then we can go.’
As soon as the call was over, Amarachi called again. Her heart thumped. She picked it up.
‘Hello,’ she said.
‘Nne, are you back?’
Was that why she had called? To find out if she was back? Was she already tired of caring for her father? In just one week?
‘I am at the airport,’ Adanna replied.
‘Thank God.’ Now she could hear the anxiety in her sister’s voice.
‘Is there a problem? How is Daddy? Is he alright?’
‘That is why I am calling.’
‘Why you are calling? What happened?’
‘Daddy is missing,’ Amarachi said.
‘What do you mean Daddy is missing?’
‘I took him to camp last night.’ Adanna heard some sniffing. Was Amarachi crying?
‘You took him where?’ A tinge of hysteria had entered her voice, making it rise.
‘I took him to camp, the last Friday of the month. It was a special service. I went to the altar for prayers. I wanted to go with him so that Papa GO could lay hands on him but he would not get up to go with me. When I came back, he was not there. We have been looking for him since then.’ The tears were coming out fully now.
Adanna’s heart hammered crazily in her chest. This was what she had felt on the plane.
‘I have been trying to reach you but your phone was not going through.’
Adanna tapped her foot, impatient for the conveyor belt to bring out her bags. It was sluggish and noisy by turns, as if it was saying, ‘Look at me. Am I not carrying the weight of the world on me? Look at me—carrying the shopping and gifts of Nigerians in black and blue sealed bags and suitcases.’ People grabbed at their luggage and she fought not to be jostled away from the front. Her bags were some of the last to come out, probably because she was the first person to check in. She fumed and sweated as she waited for them, wanting to be outside already, to be at Amarachi’s house in Lekki.
With trembling fingers, she dialed IK.
His voice was sluggish, and she realised her phone call must have woken him up. But she plunged in without apologies.
‘Daddy is missing.’ And, for the first time, it struck her in her chest. A heavy thud, like the strike of Daddy’s hammer from his well-equipped toolbox on a nail in her mother’s poultry house or to solder on a bolt that was falling off a door in the house in Enugu, saying while doing so, ‘There is no need to call a carpenter for work that any man can do.’ Daddy, Professor Iloabachie, eminent lawyer, holder of important national positions, widower, grandfather of four, eighty, newly diagnosed with dementia, a specific type which was not yet determined, was missing. In Lagos, a small, powerful city, on whose brown soil twenty million people fought for space and air.
- Cheluchi Onyemelukwe is a Nigerian lawyer and academic who has done much advocacy work on issues such as violence against women and girls, and health. She holds a doctorate in law from Dalhousie University in Canada and often advises international organisations. The manuscript of her debut novel, The Son of the House, was longlisted for the Mslexia Novel Competition, and the published version won the Best International Fiction Book Award at the 2019 Sharjah International Book Fair. She currently lives in Lagos. Follow her on Twitter.