By Tony Nwaka
She’d gone a little darker, with her straight and thick eyebrows looking slightly unkempt.
“Mummy, what’s the problem? You’re getting me scared. For two days now you’ve been looking strange,” Amuebie said.
Her two younger ones were now a few steps behind. They all gathered around their mother who looked up and tried to disguise her agony.
“It’s all right, my dears,” she said.
“It can’t be all right, Mummy. Amuebie is right. I’ve also noticed you’ve been looking worried for some time now. Or is it the death of Uncle Madu that’s made you moody?” Nonyelim said.
Amuebie scowled at her sister. “Which Uncle Madu? Please forget about that one,” she said and turned to their mother. “Mummy, please don’t tell me it’s because of those people you’re looking this way.”
Amina stood and walked toward the TV stand. She clasped her fingers and gradually made her way back to her seat. “You won’t understand,” she said.
“There’s nothing there to understand, Mummy. Those people have never meant well for us. Why bother yourself about them. Can you imagine how they treated Afam and Nonye when they went to see them,” Amuebie said. Her naturally thick voice sounding a notch stronger.
Amina’s eyes shot across her three children. “What happened?” she asked and focused on Amuebie.
“Ehen. Ask them. See them,” Amuebie said, waving in the direction of Afamefune and Nonyelim as she moved to sit in the chair opposite her mother.
Amina looked again at the two. Their faces were downcast. “What did they do to you, Nonye,” she asked.
“It’s Auntie Isioma,” Nonyelim said.
Nonyelim narrated how they had gone to see Isioma and the hostile manner in which she reacted to their presence. Although Amina was taken aback by her children’s experience, she knew that such despicable attitude was not beyond Isioma. She had gotten used to her crankiness over the years, but she would have thought that her bereavement would have tempered her excesses.
“That’s OK. You stay at home. When I need you to go there I’ll let you know,” Amina said.
“Aaahaa,” Amuebie said.
Amina stood and began to walk toward the front door. “I’d be back soon. I’ve not been there since his death,” she said.
In less than a minute she was at the residence of Uncle Madu. The usual mourning crowd was already ambling about the premises. She greeted and exchanged banters with the familiar faces around as she made her way to the hut of Nkiru.
Nkiru saw her walk in and rose from the floor she was seated. She gave her an impassioned embrace and uttered, “Oh, my sister, God will continue to bless you.”
The other people in the room looked at one another, amazed at the burst of delight from the bereaved woman who had been reticent all through the day. Amina stayed with Nkiru for about half an hour before proceeding to the hut of Isioma.
She had just made her way into the room when Isioma looked up and saw her. She halted the conversation she was having with the sympathizers seated around her, gave a loud hiss and swung her face away from Amina. Her other visitors turned and stared at Amina as she stood by the door, befuddled by the reaction of her sister-in-law. For a moment she hesitated. Then she calmly inched her way into the room and went over to where Isioma was seated—her bulky frame had taken up a large portion of the floor.
“Sorry about what has happened o,” Amina said as she stooped to sit on the floor.
Two people were seated between her and Isioma. Isioma gave a dismissive glance, nodded and mumbled cynically, “Thank you.”
She picked up her chewing stick from the flat rubber plate by her side, nudged the visitor seated next to her to continue what she was saying, but the woman was struck dumb. The visitor looked at Isioma in bewilderment while the others all glanced at one another in silence.
Amina looked across the place and sighed. The cold stares in the room delivered the message. She stood and excused herself. Isioma ignored her and kept looking in the opposite way. Amina had hardly exited the room before Isioma spitefully rekindled her conversation with her other visitors.
Mrs. Caroline Emenike, the principal of Community Secondary School, Ubo, arrived at Akeh Motor Park by noon. She stepped out of the cab and hurried to the office of Mr. Dumbelu, a hundred meters from the council secretariat. As she walked into the room, the chief inspector of education was going to the iron file cabinet beside the window, nervously tapping the scroll he held against his leg. He turned with a furious look toward the visitor.
“What’s happening? Where’s the woman you recommended? Where are the uniforms for the children?” he yelled.
Mrs. Emenike flinched in embarrassment and slowly placed her handbag on the seat adjacent to the table. She had made an effort to keep the fact away from the authorities, hoping they would not discover that Amina had defaulted in her supplies to the schools. Now that the complaint had reached the C.I.E.’s office at Akeh, she knew there was big trouble. She inched closer to the chief inspector of education.
“I’m sorry, sir. The woman has never failed like this before,” she said.
“Where is she exactly? You just have to do something fast before petitions begin to flood the headquarters. Parents are already complaining.”
“This is very much unlike her. Please, sir, I can assure you she’ll supply the uniforms.”
“When, Principal? She’s already three weeks behind schedule. Many students now go to school in mufti. Some are even using that excuse to stay away from school.”
“I’m going straight to her place from here.”
“This is a clear failure on your path, Mrs. Emenike. You should have done due diligence before bringing her to do this type of work.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I’m leaving for her place now.”
“You better do so,” he said and threw the papers he held on the wooden table. He cast another fiery glare at the principal and stomped to his seat.
Mrs. Emenike had never seen the chief inspector in such an angry mood. As she left his office it began to dawn on her that she truly should have weighed the capacity of Amina before engaging her to produce uniforms for the schools. Twice in the last week now Amina had asked for more time and twice she had failed to deliver. Now my own job is hanging in the balance for trying to patronize a woman I hardly know.
She returned to Ubo and headed for USMAN & LABARAN. The staff she met at the shop informed her that Amina had returned home for the day. She had held most of her meetings with Amina at the shop. The few times she met her at home were at the weekends. She thought it was unusual for Amina to close from the shop and return home before four. She stepped out of the shop and flagged down a tricycle.
In ten minutes she was at the residence of Amina.
“Who’s in the house?” she asked and rapped on the door. As her eyes swept the area, she noticed that many people were streaming toward a house located about a hundred meters away. She feared that Amina may have joined the crowd that was building up around the place. She knocked on the door again.
“Who is it?” Amina’s voice rang from inside. “It’s me, Mrs. Emenike.”
“Arrhh, madam you’re welcome. Please come in.”
As Amina swung the door open, her heart skipped a beat on seeing the stern frown on the principal’s face. She ushered her to a chair and stood by the next seat. “You’re welcome, madam. Please what can I offer you?” Amina’s voice was apologetic and her mien benign.
“What’s happening, Mrs. Ndukwe?”
“I’m really sorry, madam.”
“This is not a question of being sorry. There’s trouble.” Amina was startled. She knew she had defaulted on the terms of her contract. She knew there would be consequences for such failure, but she had not imagined the scope of the problem until she saw the vehemence on the face of the principal that afternoon. With tears streaming down her face, Amina knelt and held the principal by the hand.
“Don Allah! I’ll supply the uniforms, madam. I promise you, I will.”
“When, Mrs. Ndukwe? When? This is the third time you’re saying so in the last three weeks.”
“No, I’m serious, ma. I am serious.”
“You should have told me you didn’t have the capacity to do the work. Now I’m about to lose my job because of you.”
“God forbid! You’ll not lose your job, ma. Never, not when I’m serving a living God.”
The principal looked Amina in the eye. “OK, tell me. I want to hear the truth. What really is the matter?”
Amina pulled back and sat on the chair. She looked out of the door, exhaled and put her hands on the chair handle. She wondered whether to open up on her predicament or continue putting up a courageous face with the hope that in no distant time she would be able to sort out the issue. As she momentarily weighed the options, she looked up and noticed the principal’s eyes were still fixed on her.
“I ran into some difficulties,” Amina muttered and stared at the floor.
Mrs. Emenike leaned closer. “Sorry, I didn’t get you,” she said.
With moist eyes, Amina turned again to the principal. She explained the circumstances that led to her not being able to meet up with her obligations. She held nothing back. She told the principal how she had tried to save the life of her father-in-law. The principal listened with rapt attention as Amina tried to justify her magnanimity to a dying man.
Amina however conceded that in light of the reaction of Isioma to her and her children, it was beginning to look like her benevolence was misdirected. She appealed for a little more time and promised that their meeting that day would be the last they would ever again discuss this matter.
Mrs. Emenike was torn between empathy and disgust and for a few minutes after Amina had finished speaking the principal folded her arms and gazed helplessly at the wall. The principal glanced at the pictures hanging on the white wall. She fixed a look on Afamefune’s. Then she reverted her gaze on Udoka’s picture. She took another intent view of both images and turned to Amina.
Continues next week