This story is an adaptation from John Grisham’s novella Skipping Christmas. I tried to recreate in a short story what Grisham achieved in a small novel, in African context a story of White American culture. I don’t know whether those who have read Grisham will forgive my insipid attempt. Perhaps they will, in the spirit of yuletide, but one must appreciate the sincerity of imperfection now and then. That is what makes the world go round, I think.
This story is set in Nnewi and I dedicate it to the men and women who lost their lives in an industrial explosion in Nnewi yesterday. Like most of us, they made plans for Christmas and few hours to Christmas they were brutally removed from the living. My heart aches for them. Rest in peace, umunnem. And may God comfort the beautiful people you left behind.
This is not a very short piece, I made it as long as it takes to finish a full chicken. Now sit back, grab a chicken hip, enjoy and may Jesus Christ be the winner.
Donatus was one of those men who didn’t finish secondary school but considered himself educated because he read Daily Sun three times a week and owned a couple of tattered African Writers Series novels he might not have opened in ten years. Because Donatus spoke English with colonial accent coloured with big grammar he had fished out of Daily Sun and checked out in his Oxford dictionary, fifth edition, he considered himself an intellectual and patronised his wife, landlord, neighbours and the men with whom he played draft. He was the chief security officer in a bank and almost considered himself a military man and in one absurd moment started a sentence with ‘We military men…’ Donatus knew when he had made a mistake and never repeated this again, but he still felt he was more military than civilian and put great care when ironing his uniform and polishing his shoes, and marched with martial precision to work when his wife didn’t annoy him and from work when a staff or some spoilt costumer didn’t insult him.
Donatus was fifty-one and short with rich bald head, hungry eyes, an aggressive jaw and an authoritative potbelly. He was the non-drinking, non-smoking type with the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. With his name written with an indelible marker in the Book of Life, Donatus had the Book of Life locked, sat on the locker and kept humanity out of the book with a satellite nose and and a brutal tongue. Only one person could stand him and stand up to him, his wife, Rita.
Rita was a teacher in Okongwu Memorial Grammar School, Nnewi, a giant whose mere presence usually brought sanity to a class of nuts, and whose trap students dreaded and regarded as mini suicide. Her husband was always falling into her trap and bleeding for it. When he wasn’t falling/bleeding he was setting his own trap for her. Theirs was a marriage built on mutual traps. As of 14th December 2015, according to the record in his diary, Donatus had counted 241 major arguments with his wife this year. The arguments he tagged major were the ones his neighbours heard in their flats. Quiet verbal phlegms and one-line aspersions weren’t included. One amazing thing about this couple, they never come to blows and rarely lived in malice. But as two tough men cannot procreate, Mr and Mrs Donatus had no biological child in their twenty-two years of marriage.
They had a foster child, Uju. Virginia, Rita’s sister gave birth to Uju when her husband was in prison for killing an okada rider with his truck. The baby was two years old when Virginia’s husband came out of prison. He was mad that his wife cheated on him to the point of birthing a bastard while he was in jail. He drove them away. Three months later, he succumbed to church pressure (the church had employed him as their driver) and reconciled with his wife on the condition that he never set his eyes on the evil child. Virginia brought the child to her sister in Nnewi, with the view of taking the baby back to Lafia when her husband’s temper permitted.
Donatus didn’t like Uju at first and described her in his diary as ‘an unpropitious harvest of a lascivious matrimonial travesty’. But Rita registered the child in school in his surname and the child called him daddy. He had no child of his own and soon began to see a daughter he might never have in Uju. The baby blossomed into a tall ugly girl and Donatus’ affection grew with her. By Uju’s fifth birthday, father and mother were fighting to outdo the other in pampering her. So they spoilt the child hopelessly, so much that, at sixteen, Uju thought the turning-garri stick was another version of chewing stick.
One September afternoon, Uju, in what Donatus described in his diary as a ‘moment of sheer extreme lunacy’, dropped a letter on the table informing her guardians that she had found love and had gone to be with him, they shouldn’t worry about her because this was ‘the best thing for me’ and she was already ‘tired and highly flabbergasted’ by her parents’ ‘ostentatious behaviours’. Uju was two months past the age of eighteen and she had found love. While Rita wept, Donatus laughed a dry metallic laugh full of untapped sorrow.
‘She will come back,’ he said. He wasn’t confident. Rather man and wife intensified their love-making, or baby-making actually. Nothing happened, every month Rita’s monthly flow came and crushed her. Menopause loomed in the background. It was this melancholic atmosphere that made Rita shrug when Donatus announced the cancelation of Christmas. ‘Christmas is a dissipation of secular enablement with religious coloration,’ he told her. She understood. In plain English he meant Christmas would be meaningless without Uju.
Usually, for Christmas, they slaughtered a giant goat which Rita shared into three and prepared in three ways, she fried a part, roasted another and cooked one in a peppered soup. She made chin chin, zobo and boiled rice with ofe akwu crowded with stock fish. On his part, Donatus decorated the sitting room with Christmas lights, then mounted their loud speaker on the platform of their overhead tank from where he blasted Christmas songs from Christmas eve through to boxing day. Their neighbours looked forward to their Christmas.
But no Christmas this year. So as early as December 1st, Donatus went about saying how Christmas was a pagan celebration, created by Catholic oligarchy to mollify medieval pagans who were forced to become Christians. ‘Emperor Constantine himself went about with whip flogging Romans who refused to align with his forced nativity, his pragmatism of nefarious precipitation,’ Donatus told his draft playmates, whatever that meant, not that it mattered much; what really mattered was that he was angry with Christmas and he was spitting grammar. No one tried to argue with him, no one had the energy and grammar to match Donatus’ vigorous thesis; no one wanted to be reminded of where they would spend eternity, Donatus reminded them all the same. ‘Hell, anyone who celebrates Christmas will have intercourse with celestial inferno, forever.’
But nosy neighbours approached Rita and asked, ‘Did they say your husband said no Christmas this year?’ Rita would hiss, shrug or show her palms to the sky. ‘Na wah o,’ the neighbour would add when Rita wouldn’t say a syllable.
Christmas approached dangerously. Two things that happened in Nnewi at the yuletide, water scarcity and harmattan, bit and blew mercilessly. ‘Nonsense,’ Donatus was defiant.
December 21st, Rita told her husband they would be celebrating Christmas this year. ‘I don’t understand your grammar, and spare me your Constantine lectures.’
Donatus lowered the newspaper on his face. The paper was three days old, who cared? ‘I have already laid all the cards on the board. Christmas is a historical trespass of wild intangibility….’
‘Nonsense,’ Rita rose to her feet, ‘we are having Christmas in this house.’ She stamped away. But that night, as Donatus entered in his diary, he ‘won the lark to the side of history’, he told her he planned to put the fifty thousand naira he would save for Christmas into her motorcycle savings and get her her dream brand new motorcycle in the new year. Rita squealed with joy. ‘You see, your birthday is February. I am all about giving you a birthday of momentous aggregate than joining two-third of the world in squandering for Christ purported birthday of one-third of Civilisation…’ This was a promise made in the opening ceremony of sexual intercourse, Rita would normally disregard it but she was tired, too weak emotionally to argue it, and she wanted him inside her, perhaps this was their night with the god of fertility.
On the eve of Christmas, to reduce Rita’s pain of watching the whole of Nnewi prepare for Christmas, Donatus took her to Beverly Hills Hotel in the afternoon ‘to rekindle our love and union’, and they had fun. They swam, danced, ate point-and-kill, drank wine, swam, drank, ate point-and-kill and drank wine etc. They were happy, overfed and horny at the end of their funtime at nine pm.
Their problem had just begun.
Nnewi is a town which refers to itself as a city but which folds its bedding around ten and retires for the night, setting the stage for vigilantes to harass the late loner. Not tonight. Nnewi, like a bird used to the cage, was outside having a ball tonight. The over one hundred beer parlours that sandwiched Owerri Road from Beverly Hills Hotel to their house were lighted and full of men and a few girls drinking beer and eating pepper soup, and nodding their heads and occasionally stepping out to dance Tecno or Phyno. Thousands of teenagers littered about, mostly around St Martins de Porres Catholic Church, slowing horn honking impatient traffic, happy to be alive and shooting firecrackers. Donatus didn’t see any of these, he had only one thought in mind as he rode his wife home, the passionate dance on bed.
In her haste to leave for the hotel, Rita had forgotten her phone at home. She arrived to 36 missed calls from an unknown number. Donatus who had wisely put his phone off was undressing as his wife probed over the phone. ‘Thirty six missed calls,’ she announced with the ominous air of one announcing the discovery of an adder in her wardrobe.
‘Drop that thing and come to bed,’ he said impatiently. The wife made to reply him but the phone resumed ringing. She quickly connected it.
‘It’s Uju, our daughter,’ Rita announced and Donatus lost his erection. As he reached for his trousers Rita put the call on speak out.
‘Oh Mummy, how’s Dad? I miss you guys!’
‘We miss you too,’ Rita said coldly. Donatus smirked.
‘Mum, my husband and I want to come to Nnewi and see you. We want to come and start discussion of the marriage rites.’
The little she-goat, Donatus cursed inwardly, putting the cart before the horse.
‘Nonsense,’ he mouthed.
‘When do you plan to come?’ The mother asked.
Donatus began a rigorous shaking of his head. ‘Tell her we are not in town, please, love, tell her we are not in town.’ But rather, Rita said, ‘What time are you coming?’
‘Nine o’clock. We will leave Port Harcourt as early as possible…’
Donatus collapsed. He was cooked, not thoroughly yet. Uju was saying, ‘I told my husband about our Christmas in Nnewi, how we have a great goat lunch. The speaker high on the air playing Christmas Carol, the zobo, the chin chin, all. Mum, he is excited!’
When the call ended, Donatus was ready to be canned and exported for consumption to the Far East. But that would be cheap escape for him. Rita was not having it.
‘Oga, get up. Our Christmas has just begun.’
‘Please don’t do this to us.’
‘What are you talking about? She’s our only child for God’s sake!’
‘But she ran away!’
‘And she’s back. We can’t disappoint the poor child.’
‘Yeah, yeah, but we can’t disappoint ourselves. Remember your brand new bike.’
‘Forget that and get to work. Get the speaker set and go after a goat. I will see about the chin chin and drinks.’
Donatus glanced at the watch. Five minutes past ten. Lord have mercy. ‘Where am I going to to get goat at this inhuman time? This is sheer mutilation of morale.’
Rita smiled without myrth. ‘I don’t know where to begin myself but I will not sit here speaking grammar. I am going to Miss Ubochi to see what I can get from her. Perhaps she made zobo. I have flour, and might get one or two ingredients for chin chin. I am taking your bike.’
‘And am I supposed to go after the goat by foot?’
‘I believe you will get goat in the neighbourhood. But you may start fixing the speaker. I should be back before you are done.’
‘This is a reversal of deux ex machina.’
‘In plain English, this is your stupid idea gone nuts.’ And she was gone.
The first person Donatus thought about in solving his goat problem was Eugene. Eugene was known all over Umudim area and beyond as an odds and ends hand. From clearing bush to washing cars to making illegal electric connections to serving masons, lifting blocks and occasional pushing of wheel barrow. Anything. Donatus approach Nze his next flatmate for Eugene’s phone number. Nze had a wife and two kids who where presently in their village for Christmas. Donatus suspected that while men slept, Nze smuggle girls in. But that was none of his business, for now.
‘Why do you need Eugene’s number at this time of the night?’
‘To guard this compound. I heard people import foreign materials in the middle of the night.’
Nze gave the number without another word.
Eugene arrived twenty minutes later smelling of cigarettes, alcohol and immorality. Donatus squeezed his face with disgust and swallowed his holy rebuke. There is time for everything, time to rebuke and time to look for goat.
‘I know where you can get goat,’ Eugene replied after the problem was disbowelled.
‘Just follow me. Where is your machine?’
‘My wife went away with it.’
‘Oya, follow me.’
‘Don’t I need to get money or something?’
‘Oga, follow me.’
And the journey began, tall, thin sour Eugene leading the way, followed by Donatus’ potbelly then Donatus himself. They began to walk deep into Umudim towards Ukpor, descending a hilly footpath Donatus didn’t know exist. This walking was becoming endless and exposing his lack of basic fitness. Eugene was walking with so much ease that Donatus began to feel like his unworthy dog.
They had walked thirty minutes when Eugene stopped before a rickety gate that must had uplifted someone’s ego during Shagari’s era.
‘Wait for me here,’ Eugene said. Donatus was too angry and too grateful to talk. He was, as he later wrote in his diary, too foolish as well.
He had not waited three minutes when he heard someone shout ‘Onye oshi’. Eugene kicked the gate open, hugging a goat in his chest and sped past Donatus. For three seconds, Donatus was lost for action. The gate kicked open again and as three men scrambled to come out, Donatus came to his senses, he ran; the men pursued. What kind of temptation is this? He wondered. All he wanted was a goat to buy, now that drunken stoned hooligan Eugene had put him in a situation in which his life was at stake because of ordinary goat. For the first time in his life he wished there had been Kanu Potbelly Foundation, and he had been a recipient of surgery in his abdominal cavity and eliminated his potbelly, because as he ran with it, he knew he had as much chance of out-running his pursuers as a woman in her final trimester of pregnancy. But he ran as hard as he could, trying not to be distracted by the thought of the best poison to kill Eugene with.
A stick landed on his shoulder, he staggered but managed to regain his balance, the stick crashed on his backbone. ‘Ew chim o’. When the blow landed on his head and the pain sent insane shivers down his spine he gave himself up, ‘Wait, I can explain, I can explain.’
‘Where is your partner?’ two dirty slaps accompanied the query.
‘I can explain.’
A kick in the stomach. A slap in the neck. Then, ‘Come and explain to our oga. He wants to meet the person who steals our goats all the time.’
‘I am not a goat thief…’
Slap, kick, slap. ‘Sharrap!’
Fortunately for Donatus the oga he was taken to was his church member. He apologized for the maltreatment of Donatus and laughed when Donatus promised to bring Eugene here tomorrow dead or alive. The man asked Donatus to go, they would settle the goat denouement after Christmas service.
Donatus met his wife in their frontage, her hands angry in defiant akimbo. ‘I saw the goat Eugene brought to which he’s demanding 15 thousand naira. We can’t use that dwarf of a goat for Christmas.’
‘Ok.’ He past her into the parlour and slumped on an armchair. His wife came in. ‘So you are here lazing abi? Won’t you fix the light and the speaker, and go for another goat?’
Donatus felt like crying. ‘So while I am doing all these what will her excellency do?’
‘I will go to Ugwu Ofor to get palm fruits from a friend for the ofe akwu.’
‘Did anyone beat you up?’ Donatus asked hopefully.
Rita frowned. ‘Beat you up, how?’
‘I mean young men slap and kick you.’
Rita eyed him. ‘Of course no. What are you driving at?’
‘Did anyone beat you up?’
‘God forbid,’ he said.
She shrugged. ‘I am going.’
‘Are you taking the bike?’
Donatus wanted to argue against it, fuel was scarce and costly, but in a second thought, he prayed silently that she get involved in an accident and break a leg or arm or both and put an end to this nonsense.
So he increased the volume of his phone in anticipation of the great bad news. Then he lifted the big powered speaker and carried it to the foot of the powerful iron overhead platform carrying four large plastic tanks. Normally, he only directed two or three youths in mounting it. But tonight, a fifty something year old man in the middle of the night would be carrying a speaker the size of a small fridge up fifty feet.
There was a ladder framework in the tank, to carry the speaker up the ladder he needed to be genius, he was genius. He got his wife’s wrapper, put the speaker on his back and tied it like you would tie a child but twice as strongly. With a torchlight in his mouth despite a full moon, and another wrapper on his shoulder, he began to climb to his death.
He got to the end of the ladder without incidence. To untie the speaker from his back was the main risk. But he was prepared for this, he brought out the wrapper from his shoulder strapped it around his waist and tied it to the ironwork of the balcony of elevated tank, it wasn’t easy working with one hand at a time but it was done. Held on the air by this second wrapper, he loosed the knot of the wrapper holding the speaker on his back, the speaker began a treacherous slide, he grabbed it. His plan being to push the electronic with his left knuckle into his right arm then use both hands to place it between the two rows of tanks. Easy. But as he sent his left hand behind, his supporting wrapper groaned, he quickly grabbed an iron. The shaking was too much for him, the speaker began to descend, he dived after it and grabbed nothing, but he had dived above the wrapper line and began to fall head first. But his ankles miraculously got twined in the wrapper, so he was suspended in the air between the devil and the red soil, dangling like a helpless lizard with its tail tied to a tree branch.
‘Chai, chai,’ Donatus cracked as humiliation and loathing for Uju, for his wife, for Baby Jesus crushed his chest. He tried to force his ankles free so he would fall and die before his neighbours caught him like this, but the way the wrapper held him like vice, he was well secured. He couldn’t even curse aloud. The way he was, with his mouth open through which he panted like a dog in perpetual heat, with his vocal cords upside down and his salivary glands produce choking him, talking was an ordeal.
The thud of the fallen speaker had brought Nze out. When he saw Donatus held high like a punching bag made of beef he wet his trousers as he dissolved in laughter. It was this laughter that brought the other neighbours out, and Donatus died a thousand times.
He could tell those present by the way they laughed.
‘Kikikikikikiki.’ Oga Jude.
Then he heard ‘Tihahaha’ his wife! And Donatus wept.
On the pretext of making plans to rescue him, his flatmates wasted so much time which allowed a mammoth crowd of people to gather, snapping and video taping the absurdity with their phones. ‘Me, a near military man facing such ignominious treatment from bloody stinking civilians?’ he kept asking himself and weeping for answer.
Finally his neighbours got a tower-length ladder and placed it on the tanks carrier. Using this ladder and the ladder framework that led Donatus to the threshold of his grave, two strong men climbed up, they loosed his legs free and began to lower him down one notch at a time. When they arrived earth, the men began to carry him inside, but just before he was taken past the door, he heard a fool say, ‘He did this for his daughter, what a loving man!’ These words, evident of his wife’s betrayal, killed Donatus for the one thousand and first time.
So they tucked Donatus on his bed with burning feet, heartbroken and sorry for himself. It was his landlord who first came in, followed by Rita to his bedroom. He looked at the landlord’s bulldog face, but the face plus redshot eyes dummy from peeping through keyholes for sixty five years had no taletell signs of laughter, but Donatus was sure the nigger was laughing so hard inwardly and couldn’t wait to leave and injure himself outwardly with wicked myrth. ‘How do you feel?’
Donatus ignored him. Sick people are expected to be rude, especially the sick and humiliated. ‘Your wife told me everything. I am somewhat offended that you didn’t ask for our help and went about doing this on your own. What are we neighbours for? The Igbos say one’s neighbours are his kinsmen.’ Donatus said nothing.
The landlord continued, ‘I have spoken to the tenants and we have taken over the whole process for you. The men will slaughter the goat, prepare it and cut it into sizeable meat. Fix the light and the speaker. The women will cook the ofe akwu, boil rice, fry and pepper soup the meat. We must give your daughter a befitting welcome…’
The relief was so much that Donatus gasped with gratitude. But if Donatus showed his gratitude, Donatus will no longer be Donatus. So he began to moan over the pains in his feet until the landlord ran away for some relieving ointment.
Christmas Day came through Donatus’ bedroom window in strong yellow brightness, making a beautiful pattern on the rug, with a rich background full of festive pandemonium, blaring Silent Night and whiffs of a thousand aromas. The neighbours might have laughed at him last night but he would have the last laugh today. They have become his slaves, doing his dirty business for him… Hahaha.
He got down gently, feeling his soles on the rug like a baby learning to stand. The pain was sour but unserious. He walked a little, he walked with only a slight, yeepy! He would chop Christmas and welcome his handsome son in law with two legs, hahahaha.
The ringing of his phone on the foot of his bed interrupted his celebration. The caller was unknown. He connected it. ‘Daaaddy!’ Uju’s voice.
Donatus was so overcome with paternal affection he sat down on the bed. ‘How are you Sweetness?’
‘We are on our way!’
‘My husband says we have less than an hour to get to Isikwato.’
‘What is Isikwato?’
‘My husband’s home town. We just changed our mind. We will spend Christmas in his place and New Year in Nnewi…’
And a wave of curses took over Donatus, ‘Alusi Anaedo, Ezemewi, Arochukwu, Idemili, Ikenga, Agwu Nsi na Ndioche Nnewi tu gbuo gi onu, tigbuo gi ma repia gi oku, ka igba toto buru ntu, ngi Ekwensu ajuru aju!!’
Tweets to @Oke4chukwu
Update: 2016 Christmas Story