This thing about Tonye and everything that happened often comes to me with a piercing clarity, as though it is unfolding from a huge screen right in front of me.
My mother’s other sister, Aunty Akudo; married a kalabari man, even after Grand-Pa beat his chest thrice and said he would rather die than see such a thing happen in our family. Regardless, I was in nearly all the wedding photos as the little bride, my hair held severely in place with black gel, my dress a pearly white, and in the years after that, we never missed the End of Year parties that Aunty Akudo and Uncle Tonye threw at their house in Old GRA, and Aunty Akudo would give my mother packets of green tea, medicine bottles, and fat wads of naira for Grand-Pa, which she would in turn hand over to him in the village when we travelled, and say, “Akudo na di ya si ka ha kele gi o!” after which Grand-Pa’s hands would tremble a little as he grunts and stretches them in acceptance of the gifts.
The first time my mother beat Chukwuedo, it was the day we went to Old GRA for Aunty Akudo’s son’s one year old birthday. They had travelled to America shortly after the baby’s birth, and we did not know what he looked like until that evening, when Uncle Tonye welcomed us in and Aunty Akudo appeared at the top of the winding staircase with the baby’s legs wrapped firmly around her waist. Something was unnatural with the child, I could tell, my eleven year old heart lurching ever so slightly and my mouth going dry, but Chukwuedo? Chukwuedo took one look at Aunty Akudo, making her way down the stairs so slowly that I thought she would shatter into a million pieces if her arm left the railing, and asked, “Ahn Ahn! Aunty! What happened to the baby? Why is his head bigger than his body?”
What happened afterwards was a speedy blur. Uncle Tonye opening his mouth to speak, Aunty Akudo freezing on the staircase, and Mummy pushing past me to twist Chukwuedo’s ear and give him three loud knocks on the head. Chukwuedo, too stunned to cry, covered his head with both arms and cowered in the corner, while I looked away, into the swirling depths of compassion in Uncle Tonye’s eyes, as I felt mine well with embarrassed tears.
“Ada, Ozugo, he is just a child,” Aunty Akudo intervened, resuming her excruciating walk down the stairs. My mother, who had been shooting daggers at my brother with her eyes, was suddenly jolted by her voice and hurried towards her, swiftly relieving her of the child and rocking him gently as she cooed, “Big Boy, Fine Boy, My Prince…”
“Let’s go to the sitting room,” Uncle Tonye said, but he was looking at me, and for a moment, it felt as though his words were meant for only me.
“Ngwanu, Let us go!” My mother replied with a sudden burst of energy, adding, “This my in-law sef! Have you repainted the house again? It looks even fresher than the last time, Inukwa!”
The next hours would perhaps be the most painfully awkward hours of my childhood, as we sat around the massive gold-plated table, and the cook swooped down on us with platters of cat-fish pepper soup and fried chicken and Jollof rice. The table was silent but for Mummy’s voice, filling everyone in on the latest happenings around her shop area and how she was seriously considering ditching it all for a poultry farm. Sitting directly opposite me was Aunty Akudo, the baby in her lap, and every time I looked up, I would feel her eyes on me, squinting until they became slits. She was the one with the fairest skin in Mummy’s family, and I had never admitted to anyone how frightened I was of her, with her intimidating beauty and her narrowed eyes, so much that I went to great lengths to avoid her whenever we visited. However, at this table, It was better to hold Aunty Akudo’s gaze, because looking elsewhere would bring me to the child, whose mouth appeared to be perpetually in a gaping state, emitting trails of saliva that Aunty Akudo kept wiping with a white cloth every other second, and an oversized head that appeared to have a mind of its own, looking ready to snap off his small neck at any moment as it drooped back and forth in awkward angles.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
So focused was I on my plate that I did not realize Uncle Tonye had spoken until Chukwuedo nudged me and Mummy shouted, “Munachimso!”
I looked up at him, sitting beside Aunty Akudo and fingering his beard with a small smile. Uncle Tonye was one of the few adult men I had seen who did not have a pouch for a belly. He was trim and well-kept, with a tint of grey in his full beard and a perfectly rounded head that shone as though Mummy had emptied her bottle of anointing oil on it. Something about the quiet kindness in his eyes caused me to answer truthfully, to speak out my dreams in a strong and clear voice, “I want to be a model and a fashion designer.”
“Gini?” My mother blurted in between mouthfuls of food, some of it spilling unto her plate. It was the first time I had seen Aunty Akudo laugh, a sound that seemed to start from deep within her stomach and erupt into a quacking squeal, ugly, unlike the rest of her. The sound appeared to startle her baby and he began to cry so loudly that Aunty Akudo had to call her House help to take him inside the bedroom.
“Wow, that is very interesting,” Uncle Tonye said, his eyebrows high. “Very nice.”
“Me I want to be an Engineer,” Chukwuedo, who was not used to being ignored, announced.
“Children of nowadays eh! They have so many dreams at such a young age.” Aunty Akudo said, calming, and my mother nodded vigorously in agreement.
I was disgusted at this exaggerated show of solidarity, ashamed of this pliable thing my mother became whenever we visited her sister. I wished that she had, instead, squared her shoulders and taken a stance for us. I watched the nodding woman across the table and I resolved never to be her.
“Without dreams, we are worthless people, really. Do not ever lose sight of your goals for anything or anybody,” Uncle Tonye spoke up, his eyes creasing in a smile.
I smiled back. “Yes, Uncle,” I said.
His smile widened.
“Now when you grow up and become an important person, don’t forget the wise man that shared these wise words with you,” He added.
From then on, I would look forward to every party at my Aunty Akudo’s place, begging Aunty Amaka to convince Mummy to shop for my Christmas dresses early, so that they arrive just in time for December 8, which is when the End Of year parties are held. The year I turned fifteen, I had drenched myself in Aunty Amaka’s perfume and puckered my lips in front of her mirror, bloodied by her lipstick. When I appeared in our Sitting room, Mummy immediately smeared the colour off my lips and onto my face with her fingers and I ran back to my room crying. I wanted to rebel, to fold myself in a corner and sulk, but Uncle Tonye’s eyes were implanted in my head, and I resolved to attend the party still. I washed my face, powdered it, and oiled my lips with my mother’s anointing oil, knowing that she would not disapprove.
In my sixteenth year, I had gone into my mother’s bedroom and stared in the mirror, a wave of dissatisfaction washing over me at the sight of my bare and unattractive chest. I had folded up equal wads of tissue and fit them into my singlet, arching my back triumphantly as my new breasts came into form perfectly.
Yet, Uncle Tonye barely said anything to me at these parties. He would welcome us in and hug us, one after the other, but there were no intimate moments, no shared secrets passed through his smiles and soft voice.
At the start of every new term, he would send money to Mummy, and we would take turns to thank him over the phone. When it got to my turn, Uncle Tonye would say, “My Model, hope you are not getting fat o!” and I would feel my body sag with frustration. How familiar he now seemed over the phone, then turn around to act as though I were invisible every time we visited his home!
I was seventeen and out of secondary school, proud of my long legs and my flat stomach, when Mummy sent me to Uncle Tonye’s office with two live chickens. She had started a poultry Farm behind our house, and she wanted Uncle Tonye to have some chicken because, “when a good man touches your wares, it will prosper bountifully.”
Uncle Tonye had asked me to wash my hands after I handed over the squawking birds to his assistant, and I had filled my palms with the scented soap from the office bathroom, feeling my head swell with the reality of being in his personal space, of bending over that sink just as he did every day, and inhaling the sickly sweet scent of his hand wash.
Everything is clear to me even now, as clear as the red of his tie as he adjusted it, reclining in his seat and called me a bright girl, asking that would it be silly of him to want to hear every detail about my life?
“No, N—No,” I stuttered. I was flustered, my mouth dry and my shirt suddenly uncomfortable around the collar.
Then Uncle Tonye leaned forward, his eyes bottomless pits of honey brown, and he said, in a voice that managed to be both soft and possessive,
“I want to know you Muna. I want to know everything about you.”