ENGLISHMAN IN BENIN CITY, 1981 (Part Thirty-One)
That was the last thing on my mind although it was clear to me there was something amiss about Gina. I was lost for words. My body felt numb.
It was an experience I could not imagine as a man. All I could think of was how humiliating it must have felt for a person you didn’t want to pin you down and force entry into your body.
I sat there for a long time and could not utter a word. I could not find any statement of consolation to bring calm to Gina. She looked paralyzed. It seemed the best thing to do at the moment was not to say anything. Perhaps by not saying anything, I could pretend it did not happen.
For how long I kept quiet, I could not tell. Five minutes? One hour? Five hours? I had lost the time dimension to reality. I was reduced to a pair of eyes simply staring at Gina. At some point, she became blurry, and seemed to have disappeared into the room.
From far away, I heard her voice.
“Are you alright, Moyo?”
I was startled. I took in a deep breath and she gradually came back into focus. She had never called me Moyo before.
Her voice continued. “I’m so sorry to make you feel guilty. It’s not your fault in any way. It was selfish of me to project fault on you.”
I still couldn’t find my voice.
“It was just because I felt as if I lost in two ways,” she said. “If you had loved me before the—the—thing happened, I thought it would not have felt so bad.”
“May I give you a hug,” I said finally, still sitting where I was, not moving.
“No,” she said. “I’m not worthy of your touch.”
I continued to stare at her. She went out of focus again.
“And I felt so guilty,” she said. “I felt as if I brought it on myself. Also, in two ways.
I didn’t say anything. I could hear her voice, but I wasn’t seeing her. Her voice seemed to come from a distant place, somewhere really far away, certainly not in the same space I shared with her.
“First, I shouldn’t have been drinking,” she proceeded. “I don’t drink. But I thought that night was different. I was shocked when I saw my father’s body in the casket, as he laid in state inside our sitting room. He did not look dead. He looked just as if he was sleeping. And he was sweating. He had a slight smile on his face. He looked at peace.”
She came into focus again.
“ I was delighted. I didn’t expect he would look so fine. I thought his body would be broken and bruised, and that he was going to look like a monster. I had never seen a dead body before.”
“I have never seen one before either,” I said, in a voice that came out of me, as if I was not the one talking.
“My father was the closest person to me,” she said. “Not even my mother was closer to me. I told him everything that happened to me. I kept no secret from him, because I knew he would totally understand.”
I looked at her eyes. She was talking to me, but she was not looking at me. She seemed to be talking to the wall that she was staring at.
“As I looked at him inside the casket, I remember a particular day that I was in so much trouble and he saved me. That day, my mother sent me to the market to buy her some sewing threads. She is a seamstress. She didn’t have much money, and hardly had any customer. It was, therefore, such a big deal when she got this commission to sew some textiles for a group of church women.”
I nodded my head.
“She gave me two naira to buy her some four colors. I think she wanted black, white, red and blue. I must have been about twelve years old. I was hurrying to the market when I saw a crowd gathered not too fat from our house. I stopped to take a look. They surrounded two people who were playing cards.”
“No,” she said. “They were playing cards. They had a mat on the floor. And one of the two men would throw some cards on the floor and the other one would pick the right card. The man who was picking the card was always picking the right one. I watched them for a moment. It looked so easy. The man throwing the cards on the mat was so upset because the other man kept winning and began to make fun of him. The man had won more than twenty naira, and he started playing with only fifty kobo. The man throwing the cards on the floor and who was losing finally said he was no longer willing to play with the guy who was winning. He said the winner could read his hands too easily. He said he wanted someone else to play. Another man stepped in and also won five naira. In just a couple of minutes. It was so easy. Even I could see how easy it was. The guy losing said he was not playing with that man again either. He wanted someone else.”
“And you stepped in?”
“Yes,” Gina said. “I calculated that I could also make some quick money. My mother would be delighted. I could even buy a chicken from the money I made and take it home to surprise her. We would have a lovely Sunday dinner after church. And there would still be enough money to buy my textbook. The teacher had been upset because I didn’t have the textbook.”
“What a shame,” I said.
“So I stepped into the middle of the circle. I played with fifty kobo. I could easily turn that into one naira, double that amount.”
“That’s a money doubler!” I said.
“Well, I didn’t know. It looked so easy. You just watched his hand as he dropped the cards, and all I had to do was pick the black card. I saw exactly where he dropped the card upside down. It was easy. He did it so slowly. Imagine my surprise when I picked the card, turned the face up, and it turned out to be red. The man pocketed my fifty kobo. I panicked. I started crying. The man said I could make my money back if I made another fifty kobo bet. I had no option but to play again because I couldn’t afford to lose fifty kobo. My mother would kill me.”
“You should have stopped at that point!” I yelled at her.
“I didn’t know! So I placed another fifty kobo bet. I picked the wrong card again. Needless to say I continued playing until I lost all the two naira. I started crying, but he wouldn’t return my money to me.”
I could not return home. I sat in a corner and continued to weep until I felt a touch on my back. It was my father. He said they had been looking for me. I told him what happened to me. Two naira was a lot of money for our family. I expected him to be really upset with me and to beat me. No. He only laughed. He felt he was funny.”
“Yes. He said he knew that I had learned my lesson and would never do such a thing again. We didn’t go home straight. We went to his friend’s house, and he borrow the money from his friend, giving his friend his watch as guarantee. We went to the market, bought the threads and returned home. He told my mother he found me on the street, wandering around, lost. He acted very angry with mom for sending me on an errand to such a distant place. My mother sort of suspected something was wrong, but couldn’t figure it out. She was just happy I came home alive and safe. The event of that day remained a secret between my father and me until he died. And I knew from that day that I could always trust him with anything, and he would never betray my trust.”
“What a story!” I said, beginning to finally come alive.
“Yes, indeed,” she said. “That was what was going through my mind as I gazed at him in the casket. He seemed to be smiling at me. Then I felt a gentle touch on my shoulder. I turned and it was my stepbrother Sunday.”
“Your stepbrother?” I interjected.
“Yes, my stepbrother,” Gina responded. “You know, the man I call my father was not my biological father.”
“Really?” I was astonished.
“No,” Gina said. “I never knew my biological father.”
“Incredible!” I said. “Did he die when you were young?”
“No, Moyo,” she said. Then she didn’t say anything again. She began to look at the floor.
“Please don’t tell me what happened unless you want to,” I said quickly.
“In any case,” Gina continued. “Sunday tapped me on the shoulder. He asked if I wanted to have a beer. At first, I shook my head. But he pressed me, saying it was okay to celebrate because that night was special. I agreed. He had a room at the house, which he shared with my younger brother. Sunday was by another woman who left my father before he married my mother. We went into the room. He must have placed something in the drink. I didn’t have more than a sip before I lost consciousness. When I gained consciousness later in the night, he was still on top of me. I began to throw up.”
TO BE CONTINUED.