|Jan/Feb 2014 Fiction|
Image courtesy of British Library Photostream
It was a November afternoon, cold and somber. Inside a courtroom foyer, in the old Aberdeen Town House and Country Hall, a concrete building overlooking the dead squires of Gallowgate, blinds had been pulled up to usher in the feeble sunshine seeping through the stained glass windows. The foyer was like a chapel in a medieval cathedral, with that musty hymnal air of burning candles, incense, and dank moss. Perhaps the comparison to an ancient religious temple was a kind one, for the long room was filled with archetypes of people, colored and white, striding the hard floors with anxious expressions on their faces.
Among the people in the foyer was a pensive-looking young woman, Ama, who was sitting composedly and watching the clock with painful attention. From time to time she turned her gaze to the entrance doors, two great slabs of bronze-colored oak that seemed to drift closer with each swing, as though foreshadowing some bad news.
When the clock struck half past one, she turned away from it. For hours, it seemed, she had been transfixed in a spell of waiting. She was conscious of herself as she sat in the foyer, of her shadow, the shade of a young black woman in a plain black dress, waiting to be married. She wanted to sit close to Tosan, to hold his hands, to feel beautiful in his eyes, to be reassured that this was what he wanted. But uncertainty chilled her designs as she realized that she was alone.
The noise in the court foyer mixed with the loud silence in her heart. She sat breathing it in, her whole being tense with premonition. She had been afraid of something like this. All kinds of anxieties, though none that could be visible to anyone but herself, were transforming into questions she had no answers to: Was he ever going to come? Where was he?
To Ama, the prospect of his not coming loomed as yet another twist in her life. In the course of the morning's reflections, she had relayed to herself the manner of their parting: replaying the preceding scenes, exploring the angles, searching for clues—any kind of clue. They had argued the night before about postponing the wedding, and like such arguments, the bitterness lingered, fouling the air between them as he left for work. Before leaving, he had said in a gruff manner, "I'll try to be there on time." Now as she waited and pondered over it, she could not shake off the inauspicious feelings that explained his absence.
Another glance at the clock; it was now 1:42. The languid motion of the second hand seemed to drain her of will. Ama sighed, surrendering herself to self-pity: when had time affected her like this before? She should have told him in the morning, with a placatory smile, that perhaps she was not ready, that she would prefer to do things the traditional way. But she had not, because in the three decades of her life, it had always been easier to let things happen.
This imaginary conversation, repeated endlessly in her mind, tired her. It would have been a simple conversation—the task was not such a difficult one—but she had balked at the complicated scenes that would have succeeded it. She dialled Tosan's number again. No response. He must be on his way, she reasoned.
By two o'clock there was still no sign of him. Every minute that passed seemed like a dull stab delivered straight to her heart. What she was feeling was a kind of panic—an irrational fear that had no clear definition. After some moments she stood up and walked past the secretariat doorway to the ladies lavatory. A cleaning woman was stepping out with her trolley as Ama came in. The lavatory was empty. She placed her handbag on a washbasin and looked at her face in the mirror—not for the first time that day. The smooth, long folds of her braided hair were unruffled, but her usually bright face was dark and overcast—like a sky drenched in fog. It reminded her of Mrs Tuoyo's face on the many occasions in the past when she would sit in her rocking chair, knitting and complaining about the vicissitudes of life.
The court clerk had been sympathetic, earlier, when Ama informed her that she was waiting for her man.
"Are your witnesses here?" the clerk had said.
"They are coming," Ama said, without thinking.
The woman had looked at her askance and said, "I hope you know that your event is slated for 2:30."
Ama adjusted her hair in the mirror. The clerk had called it "your event," but all her life she had dreamed of a wedding—a proper wedding. This event, with no wedding dress, no guests, no wedding cake, and not even a bridesmaid, was never in the script. The black dress and dark tights she was wearing made a drab impression. She powdered her face in a hopeful attempt to wipe away the bleakness on it. It seemed to be the only thing still in her control.
A woman in a white dress walked into the lavatory. She pulled a small, pink powder case from her handbag and also began to dab at her face. Perhaps she was here for her own event, Ama thought. Indeed the lavatory had assumed the character of a bridal room. It even had some flower vases.
Looking at the mirror, she imagined the withering look on Mrs Tuoyo's face had she been there to see her. What would she say, for instance, if Ama told her: "Mother, do you know that I was introduced to Tosan only about two months ago? Do you know that we have been speaking over the telephone for most of that time? And that we only met each other for the first time three weeks ago? Do you know that we are about to get married today?"
Well, Ama could not conceive of telling Mrs Tuoyo; she simply would not believe it. She would throw a tantrum, Ama knew that. The once beautiful face which had creased in recent years would become even uglier with passionate hate. It was hard to come up with any reasonable excuse for what she was about to do. Even harder was the task of herding off the gossip that was sure to follow among her friends and relatives. She knew it was suspected that this impromptu journey was with a view to finding a man. Perhaps it would always be the way they would see it, "Ama dashed off to London to marry a stranger without informing anyone." She shrank inwardly in dismay at this harsh view of herself by the same people who until recently had been close to her. But contrition, the knowledge of having behaved so insensitively, and obstinacy seethed through her. Mrs Tuoyo had had many hopes for her only daughter: the wedding announcement in the national newspaper, complete with all the family names; the lavish party, with Mrs Tuoyo's friends in attendance; the gifts and well-wishes that would come pouring in from all corners of the earth... those hopes were her failure. In all the time Mrs Tuoyo had expressed those wishes, Ama had obliged to everything. Never once had she interjected or said, "No mother." Her opinion was never considered important. One might suppose that she had passed the time in her life when Mrs Tuoyo's wishes and ambitions were paramount, or that she had gratified them as far as she was likely to do. Perhaps this event, as incongruous as it appeared to be, was the No that had been seething in her these past years.
Her telephone rang. It was Tosan. When she took the call, Ama was silent and censorious.
"I'm so sorry darling," he pleaded. "They wouldn"t let me get away earlier as I had planned."
"Are you still coming?" she said in a meek, strange voice that sounded incredulous to her.
"I'm coming over now in a taxi. Can you meet me outside the court?" he said and hung up.
Ama replaced the phone in her bag. Her head was spinning. She leaned on the washstand to steady herself. She had a sense that fragments of a puzzle were falling into a pattern she could not understand. She turned to look at the mirror, full of resolve: she would finish her makeup, she said to herself; she would put on her bright face, she would wear it like a protective mask, and she would reveal nothing of the anxieties that troubled her. Thus prepared, she went out to wait for him.
Outside, daylight was ebbing. The sky was foggy as a sweep of smoke and low grey clouds rolled steadily across it. Everything seemed shrouded in grey mist. The street was abuzz with a stream of cars and buses and scores of people moving past each other in a hurry. She saw a postcard bobble over the road surface and disappear under a passing car.
It occurred to Ama, as she stood in the narrow street, that being there in itself was an act of faith. Faith had brought her a long way to find love, and now she felt herself approaching the Rubicon. All along, while going through the motions of preparing for the wedding, several questions nibbled at the back of her mind. She knew, even with the inconvenience of Tosan's whereabouts, she was not so much eager to be married to him as she was self-divided. Her eagerness, the periods when she said to herself, "I would love to marry this man," had a pleasurable ache and were intermittent; her weakness, the treachery of her doubts, and the ripe angst of foreseen guilt were the things that preyed constantly on her mind—even against her efforts to subdue them.
Now, goaded by the open road, her mind once again took up the unresolved queries. Who was this man she was about to marry? Except for the couple of weeks they had spent together, she felt she hardly knew him. Was she playing the wrong cards again? So often in the past she had yielded to heady impulse without giving due thought to the consequences of her actions. A month ago, seized by a wild, trapped feeling, she had quit her flight attendant job in Lagos and travelled to London to be with Tosan. Having only met him briefly before in Nigeria, to say she had been in love would have been false. The word love implied a prospective resolve, some higher purpose that overrode common sense. Rather, it seemed she was responding to a sense of suffocation she felt with her job and with her life in Lagos. What to do when she was in London, she had not decided beforehand. Now that the impromptu arrangement was about to bear fruit, she did not quite know what to make of it.
Thinking of these things, she was conscious of a cold, tight knot in her stomach and an overpowering urge to cross the street and get away, far away from the court premises. But something else, perhaps a succeeding ray of common sense, kept her there. Perhaps it was love. Perhaps love was there in the cold and narrow street. She waited.
Then a car pulled over on the other side of the road. Tosan jumped out, mindless of the traffic, and sprinted the few yards across the road to where she stood. On seeing him, a strong rush of warmth—that treacherous physical weakness that always betrayed her sense of judgement—swept over her; and all her doubts vanished as quickly as they had come.
"Darling, I'm so sorry!" he said, breathing heavily. "We were short-staffed, and they wouldn't let me go..."
She embraced him, cutting off his excuses. And then, as though struck by a flash, she said, "Where are the witnesses?"
He cast a wide-eyed look at her. He had forgotten. He turned and ran back to the cab. Ama watched as Tosan spoke rapidly to the driver and a blond woman standing by the cab. Suddenly he knelt down on the pavement, clasping his hands together in a prayer for help. This last act of submission touched her deeply, coming as it did after the shades of Inquisition she had cast upon him.
After a few wary glances up and down the street, the cab driver shrugged, ambiguously, as if waiting for the woman to decide for them, and then slammed his door like someone yielding unwillingly to a philanthropic demand. Ama saw the blond woman sway. It looked as though she was processing a decision, and, with a slight nod of the head, she turned and walked towards Ama. The two men quickly fell in line. And so the event, Ama's wedding, began in the dour inner confines of the sheriff court.
When at last they were ushered into an office, Ama and Tosan were engaged in that arduous prelude to every formal commitment: the filling and signing of forms. The forms came in triplicates, and the clerk was conscientious in handing them out. To Ama, the activity gave the event an air of authenticity which the lack of a wedding dress, a priest, a bridesmaid, and a supportive family had eroded.
When they were done, the clerk led them to wait outside one of the court rooms. For the first time, Ama took a closer look at the two people who were attending her event. Did she detect a look of commiseration on the woman's face while they waited? She could never tell for sure. She thought she saw the woman stealing wistful glances at her. The woman must have been in her forties. Her blond hair flashed in the dim lighting of the chambers every time she turned her head. She was wearing a pale green suit, earrings, and black shoes. To Ama, her own dress seemed rather domestic and inferior in comparison. The driver, a turbaned Sikh, appeared restless and kept glancing at his watch.
Ama cast a roving eye at Tosan and observed that he was sweating. She handed him a handkerchief and nudged him to take off his thick coat. Tosan shot her an uncomfortable look, as if she was asking him to unveil an unfinished bust. She realized he was embarrassed: he was still wearing his work uniform underneath.
At that moment the door swung open. Four giggling women stepped out. Two of them kissed on the lips as they walked away; a kiss that signalled commitment. The clerk quickly ushered them into the court and handed their papers to the judge.
The court chamber was a small, low-ceilinged room, painted in stale white, with thick tartan aubergine curtains shielding the large windows. Most of the space was covered with stiff, brown wooden chairs. It seemed a most befitting place, Ama thought, for handing out capital judgements and life sentences.
The judge was a portly fellow who wore a lilac sash over his violet robe. He seemed relieved to see them. He cleaned his glasses, placed the frame back on his narrow nose, rested his elbows on his desk, and leaned towards them with a benevolent look on his face.
Ama reflected with some regret that her world was switching to an unaccustomed circle of amity, complete with a long list of taboos and a licence to go with them. It wasn't a role for which one could audition. Like those who had gone before her, she had arrived at the oath-swearing unprepared.
The judge spoke. "Lady and Gentleman, what have you come here for?"
They both gave a stiff, rehearsed reply.
"Are you prepared?"
"Have you both agreed?"
"Where are your witnesses?"
Tosan motioned to the driver and the blond woman.
The judge adjusted his glasses and read from a small book. "These two have come to be joined together in matrimony in accordance with the registry laws..." It was the usual humdrum, and the judge spoke as he would to a packed court room. It seemed to her for a moment, even then in the artificial silence of the court chamber, that his words wore the heavy cloak of indissolubility.
"Would you like to say your vows?" the judge said.
Tosan nodded. "Yes, we would like to read our vows to each other."
Here Tosan began a hasty, uncoordinated searching in his pockets, which meant, as Ama knew, that the secret note he had been composing in the past few days was about to surface. When he found it, he took a deep breath and began, "Amy—" calling her by the pet name he had given her.
When in the future people would ask her about the event, she could only relive up to the point when Tosan began to say those vows to her; everything else was a blur in her memory. Or perhaps it had all happened too swiftly for her to remember clearly. She did remember crying at some point during his rendition, and that she had been surprised by the tears. She could not remember the rest of his flowery talk, the glowing love lines, the assurances, and the final, very grand vow of commitment. His motions were like those in a silent picture: his lips moved, but her mind registered nothing.
And so it came to pass. Even then she could not point to the exact time when the transition was made. The whole scene had a rehearsed quality that made it look unreal. They slipped the rings on their fingers and kissed, just like in the romance books she had read in high school. Her first reaction to the cold sensation of the metal band on her finger was to cringe. The blond woman dabbed at her eyes. The taxi driver, standing a little apart with his hands in his coat pockets, watched them with an impatient look.
As the judge declared the start of her marriage in measured tones, she felt as though she had passed years on a distant coast, and now she could not see a port of return. Something stirred in her, perhaps an invocation of all the inexplicable feelings that had led her to where she was. It was a sense of knowing that her life would never be the same.
Ama and Tosan lived in a two bedroom flat on the third floor of an old tenement house on Queen's street. They shared the apartment with Tosan's friend, Moses, a salesman, who was often away. Queen's street was in Tory, the older part of the city, home to a long row of post-war tenement blocks. In the city the air was crisp and clean, but on crossing the Tory Bridge it took on a dank twist. Already, as they approached the tenement buildings, the noxious stink from the fish factories wafted towards them. Dusk was approaching, and the streets were cold and grey with suffering.
"I hope it starts snowing soon," Tosan said, sniffing the air with disapproval, as they made their way to the apartment block.
Soon they mounted the battered stairs, walking awkwardly, as though bound together by an invisible manacle. Inside the flat, the living room had a light blue carpet, two brown-covered sofas, and a little round table with a plastic flower vase. Blinds were half-drawn so that everything came to view in dim light. When Tosan closed the door behind them, Ama felt as though they had returned to a place they left many years ago. It would not have surprised her to find a pile of detritus on the floor, snakes dangling from the mantelpiece, and stray cats hiding behind the curtains. There was duskiness in the flat that seemed to take the shape of cold. She went from wall to wall switching on the lights and the heater. The darkness retreated outside.
Tosan poured himself a drink and sat heavily on the sofa. Ama went into the kitchen to fix a quick meal. She felt her mind adjusting to her new status: the matriarchal figure waging an endless war with domesticity. She wanted to cook a traditional meal, something for the occasion, for Tosan had spoken so wistfully of his late mother's cooking, but she didn't have the resources at hand. She was yet to find an African shop in the few weeks since they arrived in Aberdeen.
The electronic timer on the burner read 16.45. While she warmed the food she had made earlier in the microwave oven, she leaned on the kitchen window, looking out into the grey fog that was expanding from the skies. The backyard seemed emptier than it used to be. The street had begun to attach itself to the gathering darkness: the quiet monotony of cars parked on both sides of the road; the high tree branches lurching gently in the cold evening wind; dead yellow leaves floating across the pavement; a woman walking her two dogs, dragging them along in a winding fashion. She lowered the window hatch.
The court, the judge, and the kind couple who stood by them were now history—they all belonged to the past, she reflected. But when she gazed into the darkening street, it was the future she worried about. Returning home on the bus, she had wondered with a sense of dread how she was going to break the news to her family. She already felt herself, the bourgeois air hostess, separated from them. Now as she thought about it, she felt even more an acute sense of her alienation.
There was a gentle grip on her waist. Tosan stood pressed against her back with his hands around her. "What are you dreaming of?"
She leaned back. This is where I belong, she thought. I have left everything behind to fill this space.
She said, "I'm yet to inform Mother about today."
He said, "Do you want to telephone her?"
"No," she said, shivering inwardly at the prospect of what she knew would be a bitter conversation.
"What would you rather do? Write a letter? You worry so much about what other people think."
Listening to him, she felt that another meaning was carried by his words: Her mother might still be alive, her family—an omnipresent shadow dogging her steps, but her sense of familial duty—something which had always regulated her—had turned to another. Henceforward her life, her time, her whole being, would revolve around Tosan.
"Perhaps you're right," she said, "I should write her a letter."
Tosan kissed her hair. Softly, he said, "You are sure that's what you want to do? The mail will probably take three weeks to reach her, and, besides we don't have any wedding pictures to show her."
"What about the pictures we took outside the court?"
"I meant proper wedding pictures, like the ones people take in church."
Guilt, the unfailing goad, reared its head again. This time she could not ignore it. All her rationalizations, pitched against the rough weather of her mother's rebuke, fell apart like a pack of cards. She buried her face on his chest and sobbed without tears—a dry, breathless sound.
"I'm sorry," he said conciliatorily. "I hope you don't think I'm indifferent because my parents are not here to bother me. I don't like this business of the courts either. We'll have a proper wedding in Nigeria once we can afford it. For now, what matters is that we have each other."
They held each other for a long time while she struggled to see through the fog of guilt, but her new station was a kind of barricade, a bulwark which protected her from the outside world. It was now, perhaps, the most formidable thing about her, she could do nothing without it.
When dinner was over, Tosan stretched out on the sofa. He liked to watch multiple TV channels, and when he started flipping the screen, Ama got up and went to the desk to write the letter.
It had been years since she wrote a letter to her mother. She sat for a long time at the desk, nibbling at her pen, not knowing where to begin. Everything had changed. What happened to the obedient 12-year old at the convent school who sent letters back home by rote? It seemed like a lifetime ago when she had to constantly perform the ritual of writing long reports about the bad dormitory food, about the loneliness, the teachers and the grades she got. It was easy then because she had truth on her side. Innocence was the white piece of paper in a white envelope that she placed in Mother Superior's mail dispatch box every Sunday evening. Until the intervening years when the white paper blushed to a shade of pink, and she discovered it was safer to conceal the truth: the boys she met at inter-school events; what the girls did at night on the hostel bunk beds; the skimpy clothes she bought with her pocket money; the late night parties; and that painful night, in the back seat of Uduma's Passat car, when the pink page turned a fiery red and the letters stopped altogether. Indeed, everything had changed. She could avoid the truth then because it was an option. Now the truth stood in front of her on the desk, a formidable wedge she must cross.
She nibbled at her pen—where to begin? She knew that ten years of appeals and explanations would never placate her mother. So she did not waste words in trying to explain. "Dear Mother," she wrote, and was tempted for a brief moment to address her as "Darling Mummy," in the manner of a child that had nothing to hide. But the moment quickly passed, and she became an adult again. This letter, of all the letters, must not be seen to be coming from a child.
"Dear Mother, I have been meaning to write you for some time now, but I have been preoccupied lately. I hope you are well and that your charity work at the Women's Guild is going well."
She paused and listened to the soft snoring sound coming from Tosan, who had fallen asleep on the sofa. She sucked at her pen, thinking of how to cross the next hurdle, and then, like a car dodging a police checkpoint, she swerved and went around it by another route. "It would interest you to know that Tosan and I moved to Scotland from London two weeks ago, and today we got married in a quiet ceremony. We are both happy. Please wish us well. I'll be in touch soon. Your loving daughter, Ama."
She sighed deeply, turned the letter over and read it again. It was too apt, too brutal. But her ink was dry; there was nothing more to be said.
She sealed the letter and sat for some time at the desk, a huge weight gone from her. Then she went to the sofa where Tosan was lying and sat down beside him. The warm glow of the artificial heating was like an invitation to relax, to dwell only in the moment, to forget about the future. It must have been the cold, she thought, and settled herself as comfortably as she could.