Valerie gazed out the window, as they cruised through the small villages leading from Ore, where they’d stopped for close to thirty minutes for a bit of relaxation and feeding, towards Edo State.
She listened, absent-mindedly, to the quiet chatter among her fellow passengers with an amused smile on her lips.
The stop-over at Ore seemed to have roused and energised them. Most of them had either been sleeping, listening to music via their earpiece or had been deep in thought when they’d initially left the God is Good Yaba Park.
As their vehicle veered onto the Benin By-Pass, she mused on how much have changed since she’d first travelled these roads to join Aunty Maryanne in Lagos, more than fourteen years ago.
The roads were broader and looked better roads though still construction. There was an influx of eateries and fast food restaurants along the now busier highway especially at Ore. Even the By-Pass hadn’t been there all those years ago.
She sighed. Change. They say it is the only constant thing in life. How true.
Where she’d been a frightened teenager – alone, unsure, hopeful – heading towards Lagos, now she was a fully grown woman – independent, confident, realistic – leaving a city she’d learned to call home towards a place that had once been her home.
And if the little twists trailing through her tummy threatened to tighten their knots, she reminded herself that she had no need to fear, she was a grown woman now, no more a child and they couldn’t hurt her anymore, unless of course she allowed them to.
She turned to glance at man sitting beside her and sighed, his bald head was drooping again and heading for her left shoulder, crap!
Returning her gaze to the fast-moving vegetation, she pondered on Mama Bee’s words when she’d visited last night – ‘go to them. Look into their eyes, see their shame, challenge their judgements. Stand tall, do not cower. Not for them, for you – for your peace, your joy, your life. Let them see you come, not because you need or want them but because you are you.’
It was these words, gently yet firmly said that had forced her to pack a small suitcase that night and had prompted her call Kike to come drive her to the Park early this morning.
She hadn’t been surprised by the visit, just surprised that she’d not done so the day before or that morning when she had blatantly refused to go to work. But then again, Mama Bee wasn’t the type to hurry over anything, she mused.
She hadn’t even allowed her to vent, as she’d desperately wanted to. Just quietly and gently talked to her. Her voice soft, calm, firm and blunt. She’d told her that she either faced this now, or continue to allow it hinder her joy and stand in the way of any true happiness.
Life wasn’t a right, it was a privilege and everyone only got one chance at it. So why waste yours, she asked. Why allow these ghosts to haunt you forever?
She’d listened, really listened for the first time and knew deep in her heart that it was time. It was time for her to cast off this cloak of bitterness and anger and put an end to all the pain and recriminations. She needed to be free. She longed for it.
A passenger from behind her called out – ‘Isele-Uku junction’ – to the driver, causing Valerie to snap out of her reverie.
She shook her head to clear the woolliness as the vehicle slowed to a standstill while the Passenger who’d called out, got down. Opening the black tote handbag on her laps, she looked through it to make sure everything was in there, not that she thought something was missing, just an unconscious female gesture.
As they got back on the road, a slight feeling of apprehension crept around her heart, but she whooshed out a deep breath so as to dispel the feeling. She’d decided she’d check into a hotel, freshen up, before heading to the family house. After all it wasn’t like they were expecting her or that they’ll prepare a room for her… not that she’d want them to.
She was certain that she’d feel uncomfortable, completely ill at ease if she had to stay at the family house. She wasn’t really sure what the cost of a good hotel room would be, but with the money Mama Bee had given her, God bless her, through Kike that morning, and with the little she’d brought along and with her ATM cards neatly stashed in her purse, she supposed she really had nothing to worry about.
Less down an hour later, she was inside her hotel room, just having checked in. The cab driver she’d taken from the Coca junction had recommended it, said it was clean and good and not too pricey and he’d been right on all three counts.
She’d called Kike and told her that she’d arrived – safe and sound. And also Mama Bee and Mammy. But had squashed the temptation to call Nathan, heeding Mama Bee’s advice to wait until her return, then go see him to resolve their problem, face-to-face.
She’d half expected to hear from him, but since he hadn’t called all through yesterday and also today… so far, she was guessing she’d really hurt him and he was still mad at her.
What if she’d lost him? She wondered a little apprehensive.
Sighing, she picked up her suitcase and dropped it in the wardrobe, not bothering to unpack. She’d do that when she got back, if it was really necessary. What she needed to do now was to have her bath, change from her jeans and T-shirt and head for the family house while it was still day and leave all thoughts about Nathan and their fight until she got back to Lagos and can deal with it… sanely.
Valerie stepped into the busy Nnebisi road, grateful that the hotel was situated along the main and most important road in Asaba. It sort of made it easier to find her way around the city.
With a sense of nostalgia and sorrow she noted that her once familiar home town wasn’t so familiar anymore. The once small, slow town now bustled with people and cars obviously in a hurry to get here and there.
She stood by the road, waiting to flag down an empty cab, to convey her to the family house.
The teal just-below-the-knee dress she had on had been carefully chosen. It was simple enough to give her the casual air she strove for, yet classy enough for the urban sophistication she wanted to present. And the colour, a shade of her favourite colour, was to give her the boost and confidence she badly needed.
She stopped a taxi, bargained with the cab driver and got in.
Here goes, she thought, in a few minutes she’ll be dropped off in front of the house she once called our-family-house-in-the-village and see people she had once called family.
When the cab driver stopped in front of a stone-wall fenced house, she’d wanted to protest that this wasn’t the place she was going to, but a quick look around the surroundings told her that the changes she’d been observing all day hadn’t escaped her own home.
Getting down from the taxi, she paid the cab driver and bracing herself, walked towards the dark-olive iron gate.
The gate was open. Left open, she was sure so as to allow the free flow of people, coming and going. She greeted a middle-aged couple who were stepping out, as she entered the yard.
Her lips curved in a smile when she saw that not everything had changed.
The ancient stone-walled house that had been her grandmother’s home… and hers too after her parents’ and brother’s demise, still stood in the middle of the compound. And the four bedroom bungalow, built by her father, still stood at the left side of the stone-walled house.
But the duplex on the right-hand side of the house was a new one and without the slightest doubt she knew that that was Uncle Emeka’s house, or rather that had been his house. It looked grand and beautiful.
She quietly made her way towards the stone-walled house. There wasn’t anyone in sight, but she could hear voices coming from inside the duplex and possibly from behind it.
“Who is there?” A female voice called out from the far end of the duplex.
Valerie turned her head in the direction of the voice. A first glance told her it was Aunty Ofunne, her father’s cousin.
She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and walked towards the dark complexioned, plump woman in traditional iro and buba.
Once she’d been one of the numerous nice and caring ‘aunties’ who’d surrounded them during her childhood, when everything had been perfect. She’d been a personal favourite of Jeff’s because she’d always made him laugh with her jokes and stories.
She hadn’t really been unkind or maltreated her after the accident, but there’d been a certain… distance. A wariness that had hurt just the same.
As she drew closer, Aunty Ofunne’s dim eyes widened with shock, disbelief.
“Adanna!” She called her by her native name, her voice a little awed.
Dropping the broom she had in her hand, she approached Valerie. “Adanna, is that you? Can this be my brother’s daughter? Standing here before my very own eyes?”
She was not a tall woman, so she had to throw back her head to look into the eyes of the child she’d once loved and cared for, a child she’d abandoned in her grief because of her fear, her judgement.
But it was not the eyes of a child that looked down at her. It was the eyes of a grown woman – a beautiful grown woman.
Aunty Ofunne felt her eyes mist. Ha, at last penance can be done, amends can be made.
She fell to her knees, raised her hands towards the heavens. “Ugonna.” She called out in a mournful voice. “Oh Ugonna, my brother, today you have shown me your forgiveness. By bringing your daughter back home, you have shown that you have forgiven us for our errors, for our costly mistakes. Thank you, my brother, thank you.”
Valerie stared at the old woman, addressing her dead father, searching her heart for the bitterness, the anger. But she couldn’t find any… just faint slash of something akin to compassion and pity.
“Aunty, please stand up.” She said, bending down to lift the woman up. “Stand up.”
Aunty Ofunne got to her feet, shaking her head from side to side in regret and self-contempt.
“Ha, my daughter, I prayed for this day. I prayed hard for this day to come.” She hissed, used the edge of her wrapper to wipe her brimming eyes. “We wronged you. We failed you. I failed your father. I dishonoured my brother, hmmm.” She sighed deeply. “Fear, superstition, anger, grief… they blinded us. They hardened our hearts.”
“It’s all in the past, Aunty Ofunne.” Valerie heard herself say. It surprised her, yet it was like… an affirmation.
A truth she should have acknowledged long ago – it was all really in the past. “It’s all in the past.” She repeated with more certainty.
“Ewo!” Aunty Ofunne exclaimed striking her hand against her breasts. “Hmmm, the daughter has grown up to become truly like the mother – so generous, so compassionate, so forgiving.” Her brimming eyes implored. “Adanna, would you please embrace a foolish erring woman?”
Valerie stiffened slightly, but a look into the misty, beseeching eyes, had her leaning down and wrapping her arms around the plump woman.
They remained like that for a moment, none saying anything. Both surprised by the healing, the warmth of their joined bodies could bring.
When they finally separated, Aunty Ofunne smiled for the first time. “Look at you, Adanna, almost as tall as your father was. Chei!” She marvelled.
Valerie laughed at the amazement in her voice. “You are looking well, Aunty. How are Amara, Okey and Vivian?” She asked, thinking how all grown up her cousins must be.
“Ha, those ones.” She sighed. “They should be around somewhere. I think Okey went out with John and Alex. Who knows where Vivian is, probably staring into some mirror.”
Valerie chuckled. “That I can believe, even as a little girl, you would always find her in front of the mirror.”
“Vanity.” Aunty Ofunne pronounced, shaking her head. “Anyway , how did you hear about the burial? That is why you are here, right? Nobody had any idea how to reach you. So how did the sad news reach you?”
“Aunty Maryanne told me.”
“Your mother’s younger’s sister?”
“Yes. She came over to my working place on Tuesday and told me.”
“And you decided to come? Just like that?” Aunty Ofunne still looked stunned.
Valerie heaved a sigh, gave a shrug. “Well, it wasn’t that simple… but I’m here now. And that is all that matters.”
Aunty Ofunne sighed deeply. “And that is all that matters.” She took Valerie’s hands. “Valerie, my dear child, you took the first step, you made the first move. You were the wronged one and we should have been the one seeking you out not the other way round.”
“Aunty, all that doesn’t matter anymore.” Valerie squeezed her Aunty’s warm hands.
“They do, my dear. There are a lot of things to be said and must be said but this is not the time.” Aunty Ofunne nodded her head sagely.
“But I just want you to know, that I quite understand that this was not an easy step for you – I don’t know where you found the generosity to come here like this – I can only say that it truly shows that you are indeed a daughter of your father and mother.”
She merely smiled at the praise.
“Welcome home, my daughter. Your Uncle’s wife and your cousins are inside there.” She pointed to the duplex. “Go in, see them. This same kindness and compassion you have shown to me, please extend to them.”
Valerie nodded, squeezing the woman’s hand, she marched off in the direction of the duplex.
To be continued…