27 June 2012

Night Dancer by Chika Unigwe (Book Excerpt)

The flight to Kaduna was crowded. Mma had not expected a midweek flight, on the second day of the year, to be so full. She had not thought that Kaduna was a popular destination. As the plane taxied down the runway, a passenger at the back shouted, ‘Let us pray!’ and without waiting for a response, immediately launched into a long prayer, ending with an ‘Amen’ from more than half the passengers.

She had a ball of wool in her stomach, unfurling and making her too sick to eat. An air hostess in a tight, short skirt pushed a cart beside her.

‘Would you like some tea or coffee, madam?’ the airhostess asked.

‘Nothing, thank you.’

‘Would you like a doughnut or a slice of cake?’

‘Nothing. Thank you. Thanks.’

A ball of wool unravelling, reaching down from her stomach to gather at her feet and tangle around her ankles. She slipped off her shoes and pushed them under the seat in front of her. The ball became fire and spread out from her stomach to engulf every part of her. She took the in-flight magazine and began to fan herself.

It had been easy buying a ticket but it was not until she got to the airport that she found out that a ticket did not guarantee one a seat on the plane. She ignored the warning against conducting business with touts and bribed one who ensured that she got a boarding pass. Those warnings were for people who had no idea how things worked. And then she had waited for three hours before she could finally board. And all that waiting had not calmed her nerves. Instead, it had made her bite her nails like she used to as a teenager, when it annoyed her mother so much that she had often threatened to clip them off while she slept. The waiting had built up the wool in her stomach, rolling it into the huge ball it was now. She unclasped her handbag and clasped it again. It had been a mistake bringing such a huge handbag. She should have brought something smaller. She shifted in her chair and the man sitting beside her asked her if she was all right.

‘Yes, I am.’

‘Scared of flying?’

‘No, not really.’

‘God is with us. No need to be fearful,’ the man said and shut his eyes.

Mma shut her own eyes but could not sleep. Bits and pieces of the conversations she had had with Madam Gold bounced around her head. ‘Your mother was a very generous woman. The day we met, I’d boarded a taxi but forgotten my purse, so I could not pay the driver when he dropped me off at the market. This man, big man like that, got out of his car, held on to my wrist and swore that he’d not let me go until I’d paid him. Passers-by stopped to watch and some laughed at my humiliation. I begged this man to take me home so I could retrieve my purse. He refused. See me, all dressed up, crying and begging. I had no idea what else to do when a total stranger, a woman not much younger than me, walked up to the driver, asked him how much I owed and paid him off. She insisted on lending me the money for my shopping that day.

‘E always wanted the best for you. She loved you without reservation.

‘Your father still lives in Kaduna. In the same house. Finding him was as easy as buying salt.’

Mma opened her eyes. She looked out of the window and saw Kaduna spread out below her.

The landing was the smoothest Mma had ever experienced. It was a landing on silk. The passengers erupted into spontaneous applause and Mma joined them. The man beside her woke up with a start and then smiled sheepishly. ‘Ah, thank God for His journey mercies. I can never stay awake on a plane. You live in Kaduna?’ he asked.

‘No, my father does. I’m visiting him.’

F is for father. To say F properly, the lower lip has to come between the upper teeth and the lower teeth. Not imprisoned, but lightly trapped and then instantly released as if it were being teased by a lover. F was her father. Should she call him Father? Or Papa? Or Daddy? Or Dad? Madam Gold had said the right word would come to her, there was no need to get herself worked up worrying which was best. When she had asked Obi over the phone, he’d told her that she was just being silly, worrying over such a little thing.

‘Are there big things I should worry about, then?’ she had asked. Should she worry about whether he would accept her? Love her? Want her?

‘A parent’s love is a given,’ Obi had said. ‘No need to worry about that either.’

F is for father. A father who loved you just because. Even if you had been absent from his life since you were a baby.

Kaduna was more modern than she had expected. It was like Enugu on a bigger scale. She imagined the welcome. She remembered the off-hand way she had tried to say ‘father’ to the man on the plane, easy, so that the man noticed nothing of her anxiety. F is for father.

The taxi driver asked if she was new to the city. She said she was. He kept a running commentary of the city sights as he drove but she hardly paid him any attention. She had never been a good tourist and today was not the right day to start. She kept her eyes glued to the window, her hands busy working the clasp of her bag. The house he deposited her in front of was old and imposing. Even in its run-down state, it was still easy to see the shadow of its former magnificence. The gate was unmanned and so when the taxi dropped her off, she had pushed it open herself and walked to the front door. She had refused Aunty Kelechi’s offer to accompany her. This was something she had to do herself, she said. But now that she was here, she suddenly wished there was somebody there to hold her hand. She felt like a child on her first day at school. There had been an offer made to meet her at the airport but she had declined that, too. Maybe, she thought now, she should have accepted it.

She had told herself that she did not want any fuss made, not the way that her visit to Aba had been turned into a carnival. Yet she was somewhat disappointed that the compound seemed indifferent to her arrival. There were no nervous family members pacing beyond the gate waiting to catch a first glimpse of her; there were no balloons festooned to the balcony to show that this was an important occasion. She walked slowly to the door, dragging the small suitcase she had packed with presents she had bought (guided again by Madam Gold) and the few outfits she would need for her visit.

Last night, she had the dream of her mother again. This time, she looked less filleted, as if she had been stuffed up where the flesh was previously scooped out. But the whiff of otapiapia remained, clinging to her fiercely like a devoted dog; Mma could still smell it when she woke. It made her weep for things she was not yet ready to face. The weight of it was too much, too huge to confront. The hand she raised to ring the doorbell was heavy and shaky, as if she carried dumb- bells way beyond her strength. She brought a thumb to the button and pressed harder than she had meant to. She could hear the bell ringing. It was loud and angry. It jarred. The door swung in to reveal a thick-waisted woman in a too-long skirt and a too-white lace blouse with silver sequins. This was Rapu. The other woman in her father’s life.

Night Dancer was written by Chika Unigwe, and published by Jonathan Cape (June 7, 2012). (click book cover above to buy)

Copyright © Chika Unigwe 2012.

Chika UnigweChika Unigwe was born in Nigeria and now lives in Belgium with her husband and four children. She is an award-winning short story writer and the author of two novels. The first, On Black Sisters’ Street was also published by Jonathan Cape in 2009.


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