Abeokuta was the same city after three years. It was the same familiar buildings, the touch of the sun over the city’s roofs, and only the feeling was different, the feeling of one daughter returning to her mother after a long sundering. She had looked from one corner to another, not with the aim to see something entirely new, but to see the quotidian things newly, that it was the same as she used to know, the road, the filling stations, the government buildings.
Their house still wore the same brown colour, fainting and dull. Bishop’s Toyota was parked at a corner of the house. She heard that he bought a new car a year ago, but the car wasn’t anything new as it was parked. Dust and mud covered the body, a blinker was broken and a little crack was on the rear windshield. At the other corner, there was an orange tree where it used to be, taller than what it used to be. She took a minute to see it all, the floor, the hibiscus flower at the front near the gate, the sounds of chicken from the poultry behind. Then, slowly, as though, she might miss an important moment, she walked to the door, her bag pulled by her side. She sighed and raised her hand for what seemed like hours, sighed again before knocking on the wooden door with carved images.
‘Who is it?’ her foster mother replied. Her voice was clear and alive as the time of Martha’s childhood. It was different than what she heard hours ago when she was on the bus.
She cleared her throat and breathed out, and said, as her heart kept pushing against her chest, ‘Martha.’ She heard a shout and then the repetition of her name as though the woman was exultant to announce it to those in the house and then quietly as if she did not want her to hear it. Shifting her weight on one leg to another, she folded her lips and breathed out. She was wearing a short gown and her ears held long earrings that they might consider too big, lips covered in red lipstick. It was all her way of saying she didn’t subscribe to all she was taught or feared about her hypocrite father’s teachings. She stared at her white painted fingernails and her exposed arms and smiled. She would be an obedient girl anyway and by the end of two weeks, she would be in Lagos, fighting the rough path to becoming a great woman. The door creaked. Her foster mother stepped out, smiling and hugged her tight, detached herself, and checked her from head to toe. They hugged again, with Mrs Ajasin, touching Martha’s arm, back and breast. She giggled and defended her chest and they both laughed, a pure and sweet laugh. They hugged and she realized Mrs Ajasin smelled of sweat, onions and seasoning. This brought a kind of longing for the type of food she used to enjoy as a girl.
She stepped into the living room, where her step-father was sitting on a settee, his face behind a newspaper. Their eyes met and the smile on Martha’s face dissolved slowly like a cube of glucose inside warm water. This wasn’t the kind of communication she wished to share, the type she wanted to avoid at the moment. She knelt down, supporting her left hand on her bag and she said, ‘good afternoon, sir.’
He didn’t smile nor did he frown, his face was expressionless, plain and without focus, as though her presence distracted him from some important activities. He only snorted and said ‘Martha,’ as if he couldn’t believe she was the one kneeling before him.
She sighed. This wasn’t how she planned to meet him after the years. She had thought he would be afraid to see him, and that she would keep quiet about it till she becomes a great person. But looking at him, he stared calmly, so innocently that she doubted if he still remembered his actions. He looked at her as if she was a long past, a lost child, everything a distant, blurry memory and missing between the years and the present.
‘Come, come, come.’ Mrs Ajasin took her arm and her bag and she followed her into an old familiar room, the room she used to share with Florence. The woman brought her wrapper and her big vest, saying ‘change to this and join me in the kitchen.’ She remained in the room and stared at the old things, the walls, the paint, the shelf, hangers, reading table, the bed. Many times, Mr Ajasin had come over with his torch, asking her to spread her legs to this side and this side and he would climb over this way, sliding his filthy hand into her wrapper. She closed her eyes and sighed. Florence used to sleep on this side of the bed, a clueless, calm and harmless sleep. She opened her eyes. The walls of the room held pictures of her stepsister, the pictures they took together many years ago where it was Christmas and she wore a Santa cap. She was young and no man had ever climbed over her. She smiled at the thought and wished she could boldly say that now. She laughed, the hopelessness of her wish felt humourous. Florence was now a fine and older girl – by the new pictures, she was older and more mature. She could see her thighs in a picture where she was wearing an inter-house sports dress and in her eyes was pure innocence. She would be fifteen next month, she thought, just like you, when… when… She saw another picture of her where she was jumping over a bar and there she saw the skin of her thigh, just covered by a short. She would be fifteen next month, just like you.
‘Just like me, what?’
She frowned and stared at the picture that had been a source of questions and painful remembrance. Her father, she screamed. She turned quickly. Where is Florence?
It was the morning of the following day when she was called into the sitting room. She could guess what the purpose of such meeting was about by looking at Mrs Ajasin’s calm face and Mr Ajasin’s expressionless face and she was ready for it. Florence sat by her right, wearing a smile. She remembered hugging the girl tightly as though she wanted her to glue to her own body and never be separated again. She had waited till night when they were about sleeping before she asked one important question that had bugged her. ‘Are you still a virgin,’ she had asked. First, the girl frowned. Then Martha had pointed to the girl’s lower region and asked again, ‘hope, you haven’t done it before.’ The girl shook her head and giggled as if she was tickled all over the body. She had sighed and patted her head and blurted out, ‘he didn’t touch his own.’
They started with songs that lasted thirty minutes in English, Yoruba and pidgin. Then they switched to worship songs. Mrs Ajasin prayed for forgiveness. Mr Ajasin expressed ‘their’ appreciation to God for giving them the cloth to wear and food to eat, or bringing the prodigal daughter back and for guarding her movements through the ‘wilderness’, for protecting her from the wolves of this sinful world… it lasted another thirty minutes. When Martha was called to pray, she started and ended in three sentences – thirty seconds.
‘Blessed redeemer will appreciate you lord for you are our guardian and refuge. Therefore, we give you control of today’s activity. Take it and give us reasons to be grateful at the end of the day.’ she paused and added ‘amen.’
She kept her eyes shut for long before she opened them. Her step-father was watching her as though she was possessed by something evil and by looking her carefully he would find it either on her right arm or on her cheek or on her belly. She kept her face straight, focusing on Florence’s happy face or the figurine of Jesus on the TV.
Mr Ajasin said amen again, thank God again, cleared his throat and said, ‘we want to know, Martha, where you have been and why you run away?’How could he ask? He was the reason she left, of course, now he was asking like a completely innocent soul, as if he was clueless of the deeds he had committed. She bit her lower lip slightly. Her hands brushed the top of her knee which was clothed in a jean trouser. She had chosen to wear it despite knowing it used to be forbidden in the house. Mrs Ajasin’s face seemed to be saying, please tell us, Florence’s face was saying, ‘I want to hear it,’ and Mr Ajasin, ‘say nonsense and you will not imagine what I will do to you.’
She had prepared her answers in two parts. The first part was for the distant future when she would have become a doctor, married and with kids. She would stand before this man and tell the world the atrocities he had committed. The second part was for now – a blatant lie – she ran away to find a job in Lagos and to find her real parents.
‘I ran away,’ she said and after the expected ‘why’ as their reply, she added, ‘ I think I would find my parent.’
‘What?!’ Mrs Ajasin screamed.
‘It’s a lie,’ Mr Ajasin stood. ‘You are a fool if you think I will believe such a thing.’ His voice was rising. ‘Tell us how you have been surviving for the past three years.’ ‘Slut.’
Slut? She called you a slut. She felt blood flying around in her veins and to her head. She blinked twice and again. She exhaled and what came out of her mouth could have been a blast from a furnace. Slut? How could he say that when he was a greater, shameless slut she called ‘father,’ when he was the Satan who set her foot on the run. She whirled to her feet to match his height.
‘You made me a slut, Mr Ajasin,’ she said. She heard a sudden gasp behind her.
Mr Ajasin’s eyes were darting from one corner to another. He was looking at her as though she had breached an agreement, a secret they both agreed to keep bottled.
‘You are the shameless fagot; you called me your daughter and raped me for years.’
Mrs Ajasin stood and hobbled on one foot and another, deliberating. She didn’t offer coherent words, except ‘ah’, ‘yeeh,’ as though she had lost the ability to utter coherent sentences.
‘You haven’t seen enough, sir,’ Martha said, ‘by the time I’m done with you; your life will never remain the same. You will wish you never saved me,’ she added, tears threatening to flow from her eyes socket. She was a vessel for the words coming out of her mouth. There was an aged annoyance inside her, a caged one, it was talking now and she had no control over it. What she was saying should have been said so many years back, but she hadn’t earned the freedom to say them. When she earned such freedom, from stepping into the wildness of the world, she wished she had taken a different route to earn a living, had the world been easier. She was angry that the source of her trouble was the one to cast the first stone. How dare he?
A knock came over the door. Three people were allowed into the house. The first was a woman in a white shirt and a black trouser. The other two were police officers. The lady greeted and introduced herself as sergeant Ngozi.
Martha remembered the lady. She was an officer at Uchenna’s office in Ikoyi. They had met several times and each time was an encounter as if there was malice between the two who hadn’t done much talking to one another.
‘We have bad news,’ the female officer said, ‘I suggest you sit down,’ she added.
The room was silent. The presence of the visitor did not ruin the current atmosphere; instead, Martha began to breathe hard. She was sweating. One thing was certain and that was she hadn’t informed the police about Mr Ajasin’s atrocities. She hadn’t informed anyone either, except the woman who helped her to Lagos three years ago, and she had promised to keep it a secret.
‘Your son,’ the lady said, ‘was murdered two days ago.’
Martha heard the voice, like a muffled sound, as if someone blew air into a cup of water. She brushed a hand over her head and gasped. They had met two days ago, she remembered. Ayo was fine. He was the handsome little boy who melted her heart like butter – bearded, with a sweet smile. They talked about coming home. At the a silence followed. Martha felt a sudden stab in her stomach and she winched, then she turned, staring at the walls as if a face would appear on the frame or peer in through the window and he would say, ‘this is a prank, we were meant to come home together, and now, I’m here.’ She closed her eyes and muttered what seemed like a prayer.
‘We have to keep the body for now for our investigation.’ The lady continued. ‘We are to inform you,’ she paused and when she was sure she had their attention, added, ‘Miss Martha, we will like to bring you in for questioning.’
Mr Ajasin collapsed to the floor like a heavy book. Martha heard a scream. Then her hands dropped lifelessly by her side as if she had been electrocuted and all cells were dead. The female officer was walking towards her and Martha shut her eyes. Maybe she would wake up from this dream. She collapsed down slowly as images of three years began to form in her head. Her world was getting dark, to a meshed-up picture of human bodies and vision that seemed like blurred colours. She remembered that little girl who was climbing the fence to escape the life she never chose. She was young again, her present situation pushed back and her breathing was being swallowed by the recent news. She would die if she had the chance. She wasn’t dying.
Whatever pain and whatever shocked she felt and whatever weakened her bones now, she felt worse when she was seventeen, until that day she said goodbye to Abeokuta, never to come back until she becomes a doctor. It started there – she could point at it like a spot on a beach.