Words: Chibundu Onuzo
Illustrations: Luis Tinoco
He will take his children to Nigeria for Christmas this year. It will be their first time as a family. His wife, Agatha has been once before. Her memories are of insect bites and bucket baths, her skin braised from the sun, her stomach turned by a bout of food poisoning. She had not liked his relatives, felt them prying and tactless, bursting into tears once when his Aunt poked at her flat, childless stomach.
“We have children now.”
“It doesn’t matter. They wanted you to marry a good Nigerian girl. You know it.”
He wished she wouldn’t cry so much. His mother had only shed tears at funerals, wailing loudly when the coffin was lowered into the ground and then rushing back to the kitchen to dish out food. There was something unseemly in an adult breaking down over the memory of a 10-year-old slight.
“It’s not about you. I’ve told you. I’ve spoken to my mum and she wants to see her grandchildren before she dies. I can’t deny her that.”
Agatha was resigned now to going, resigned with a vengeance. She had taken the boys for their second round of vaccinations that day. They had come back sullen, holding their arms stiffly, rebellion on their faces.
“You’re making them not want to go.”
“Don’t be silly Nam. I’m making sure they come back alive. We’ll all have to start taking anti-malarials tomorrow.”
“No what? I checked online. Over 300,000 people died from malaria in Nigeria last year.”
“And of course, there are the things you can’t medicate against. Like kidnapping.”
“Stop it Agatha.”
“Gov.uk advises against all but essential travel but since you’re bent on going.”
“It’s not essential for my mother to see her grandsons?”
“I didn’t say that Nam.”
“Nnamdi. My name is Nnamdi.”
She could never say the double n of his name, her tongue stuttering over the letters, her attempt comical in the early days of their courtship.
“I want to come with you,” his oldest, Tobenna, said following him to the door.
“No. You need to recover. Because of the injection. What did you take?”
“Yellow fever and cholera and typhoid and some I can’t remember.”
“I’ll be right back. I’m just popping down to the shops.”
He shuts the door softly behind him. The neighbours have complained before about door slamming. He steps out onto their quiet road in Colindale and begins walking. It is Agatha who taught him this art of leaving your house to go nowhere, pacing through the neighbourhood until your mind is clear. He walks down the road and into the park, the wide greenery soothing him, even in the winter chill.
“Afternoon,” he says to Thomas, whose backyard he can see into from his window, a prim strip of England with a cherry tree and a lawn, a reproach to their own overgrown patch.
“Afternoon Nam. How are the boys?”
“They’re fine thank you.”
“Agatha told me you’re off to Nigeria for Christmas. Lucky you. Some sunshine.”
“Yeah. We’re all looking forward to it.”
“Well, have a good trip and bring back the weather with you.”
He does not know which is worse. To think of Nigeria as one giant disease to be vaccinated against or the land of perpetual sunshine, with happy, simple, half clothed natives. He wants his sons to know Oguta, his ancestral village, as he knew it, or perhaps not exactly as he knew it. Not the pressure of a bucket on his head, his neck perpetually cramped from being the family water carrier. Nor the terror of not knowing if Papa would have enough money this month for school fees or textbooks or food. He had told Agatha these stories when they were courting, a rags to riches tale that cast him as a hero. Yet, it had not all been suffering.
Oguta in December with the haze of dust shrouding it, the village full of returnees who had come home for Christmas, food and welcome in every house, no guest turned away, this is what he wants his sons to know. He wants them to eat roast corn straight from the fire, and mix the hot kernels in their mouths with fresh coconut. He wants them to take a walk around his village, this European thing his wife has taught him, and he will point out the landmarks of his childhood: the tree under which his umbilical cord is buried, the field where he threw Amalinze on his back in a wrestling match.
He wants to take them to the village square on Boxing Day. At first they may be afraid of the masquerades, which dance in a flurry of raffia and wood before breaking out in a mad dash at their spectators, whips flailing. It is all horseplay though. The pain from the lash is soon forgotten and the crowd draws near again. He wants to show them the ant holes that transport the masquerades from the spirit world to the world of the living. At night, they return home through these holes, bearing with them the cash from their day’s labour. Times are hard in Oguta, his relatives who have remained tell him. For spirits and flesh and blood alike.
Maybe he is endangering them, these beautiful, mixed race children of his, beside whom he looks like a bushman. It is not only bacteria they have to fear. There is kidnapping as well. Who would not see their fair skins and think their father was a rich man? He has walked himself back to his front door. They are having lunch in silence when he returns. He washes his hands and joins his family.
“You can stay.”
“You can stay in England, you and the boys.”
“What about the tickets?”
“I’ll call the airline tomorrow.”
“There is no way I’m staying here Dad after all those injections.”
“You will do as your mother and I tell you.”
“They want to go.”
“You mean your mum hasn’t put you off?”
“No way. I want to see the lions and zebras and monkeys.”
“We don’t have lions in Oguta. Maybe monkeys.”
“What will we eat on Christmas Day? Is there turkey?”
“No but there’s goat meat. Your grandma will fry you some.”
“Dad how come you don’t have to take the injections? Is it because you’re from Nigeria and we’re not?”
“No we’re all Nigerians: me, you, Kene, Tobenna and your mum. I just couldn’t come with you today. I’m taking mine tomorrow.”
The Spider King’s Daughter by Chibundu Onuzo (Faber & Faber, £7.99) is out now