The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia is a debut novel set against four decades of vibrant Nigeria, celebrating the resilience of women as they navigate and transform what remains a man’s world.
Have a look at this first chapter reveal, and be sure to order a copy of this wonderful novel here. Join us on May 5th as we celebrate the book launch, hosted by the Grandmother's Campaign in support of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. RSVP here.
We must do something to pass the time, I thought. Two women in a room, hands and feet tied.
I could not see how we could escape. Both our legs and hands were still tied up in knots that I could not imagine getting free if I had another hundred years. Even if we managed to get free of the knots, there was only one door out of the small room. I heard the click of a padlock every time they came and went. The only window could not fit one of my thighs, let alone my entire body. Nor could I run to save my life; even if I was not so heavy, there was the matter of my bad knees. There would be no breakout like one saw in the movies.
We did not entertain the idea that the police might save us, guns blazing, as happened in the movies. The police themselves, people said, would sometimes tell the family of kidnapped persons to go pay the ransom so that harm would not come to their loved one. They had neither the resources nor the serious desire to pursue kidnappers. There was even speculation that the police might be complicit in some kidnappings. So our only hope, like many kidnapping victims in this country, was that our people would come up with the money.
At first, fear had overwhelmed me. I struggled with them in the car as they tried to put a blindfold over my eyes, as they tried to tie those same hands with which I tried to punch. I felt claustrophobic, my ample body squeezed into a space I could not have fit into even as a teenager in secondary school. I was going to die. With a gun dug into my back as the car sped in a direction that I could not determine, I felt certain I was going to die. Afam, my son, his wedding — what would he do?
I had now gone past that visceral and obvious fear to a quietened and more sensible state. There was nothing the ears had ever heard to make them fall off, or the eyes had seen that would make them weep blood instead of tears. Perhaps we would get out alive, like other people I had heard of. At least they had taken off our blindfolds. My friend Obiageli had told me of a man whose blindfold was left on for eleven days. Imagine, eleven days of darkness and blindness.
Once they took off our blindfolds and untied our hands, the situation became more bearable. They fed us — white bread in the morning, white bread in the afternoon, white bread at night. At home, I did not eat white bread; I only ate whole wheat bread on occasion. I needed to watch my blood sugar, the doctor had told me, because I was prediabetic, and, since my father had died of diabetes, I knew that my genes were conspiring against me and it was up to me to stop them from winning. So I complained this morning when they brought some more bread.
They asked if I thought this was a hotel.
“Mummy, if your people do not come up with the money soon,” that young boy said in his deceptively soft voice, “you might stop eating at all. Where do you think the money to buy this bread is coming from?” His voice rose in anger. It was the first time he had shown any emotion. “I am sorry,” I said, feeling like a spoilt child who had just been chastised. I knew better now than to add the other things on the list I had made in my head: the room was hot and sticky. People with extra flesh like me tended to sweat a lot. Without a bath, that would make me and the room smell. Could we at least have some time to bathe, clean our teeth? Could our legs be untied? Sitting in one position and lying with tied legs could not be the best thing for two women, especially one already down the old-age road. Also, it was really uncomfortable to hold in your pee, especially for a woman my age, whose insides had shifted and moved from where the Creator originally placed them. Further, it was not right that they should follow so closely when a person wanted to relieve herself. They were nearly young enough to be my grandchildren, if I had had kids at the age some of my mates did. And I kept hearing a cat mew at night and it made goose pimples stand out on my body — could they do something about that? Finally, could you please not call me Mummy? I am not your mother; you would not treat your mother this way. At least, I hoped so.
I told them, “I am hypertensive. I need my medication. Can anything be done about this?”
“Anything like what?” he asked me. It was a rhetorical question. His voice and face said that I was stepping over invisible bounds. “What you should focus on is praying that your people come through with our money.” With that, he swivelled round and was gone, leaving his lackeys to run after him and lock the door on us.
I looked at Nwabulu now. Our mouths were free so we could talk, and we needed to pass the time. “So tell me more about yourself,” I said, trying to encourage her. “Here we are, with time on our hands.”
She looked surprised. That was not what she expected to hear in such a place, it seemed. But what else could we do? After spending the first day bemoaning our fate, the wrong decisions that had landed us there, there was really nothing much to say about our kidnapping. “We are stuck together here for only God knows how long. And as my friend Obiageli says, there is nothing like a good story to help pass the time.” Nwabulu seemed reluctant still. Her stylish scarf had been torn off her head and her weave needed brushing. There was a slight bruise on her arm. Yet she remained pretty, her face serious.
“Ifechi must be worried,” I said, “but I know he will be doing what he can.”
“Yes,” she said. “But we do not have much money. I hope they are not asking for too much money.”
I hoped so too. I thought about what Afam had said about Nigeria — what brought him back from Canada, where I thought he might settle down to make a life after school. Nigeria was growing, booming, he said. Lots of opportunities, a growing middle class, emerging sectors. Not just the oil and gas people. Look at the telecommunications industry, the banking sector, the music industry. Nigerian musicians collaborating with Western ones, and making enough money to buy private jets. Internet, even in the villages. People marching on, with or without electricity, with or without good leadership. Making money, changing lives.
But there was also kidnapping, I wanted to tell him now. And it was an easy way to make money. A few people had been killed. Mostly, however, people were released after stupendous amounts of money had been extorted from their families. Kidnapping used to be like something out of the folklore that we had heard as children — that people were kidnapped and sold into slavery. Some said it was unemployment that was driving the kidnapping trade. If more young people were employed, kidnapping would die a natural death. Some said it was greed. I had never been hungry enough to threaten anyone with a gun; to threaten to take away lives because mine was unbearable. I wondered what that felt like.
We had no way of knowing if our people were getting the money. Our people, I thought, hearing the boy leader’s voice in my head. Who were my people? My people were Obiageli and Afam. My sisters would wring their hands but they would do nothing. My youngest brother would shrug his shoulders and carry on with whatever petty trade would support his marijuana habit. Obiageli would be terrified, beside herself with worry. But she would pull herself together and get Afam to get the money. And Afam … he had a good head on his shoulders. Between the two of them they would manage something. I tried to imagine their fear, and I thought about the fear that I would have if Afam were kidnapped. I wished we could tell them that we were being treated well, considering.
“I am sure that they are doing what they can,” I told Nwabulu now. “I am sorry I took that road,” she said again.
I was almost starting to feel guilty that I had asked for that lift. My visit to Obiageli’s could have waited.
“I should have gone through Otigba Junction,” said Nwabulu. “This would never have happened in that busy place.” She had said so over and over, but here we were; what was the use of going over what-ifs, and should-haves?
“It is not your fault,” I said. “I am the one they wanted. It was just bad luck that you got caught up in it.”
“They should have police on that road. It is lonely. People could be robbed there.”
“Or kidnapped.” I smiled.
She did not smile back. She shook her head and looked at her feet. “What is done is done,” I said. A truism we had learnt at Girls’ High School Aba. And then, unable to resist, I added, “No use crying over spilt milk.”
She smiled now, a tentative smile.
“So you were going to tell me how you got into the fashion business? You are really good, you know.”
“It is a long story, Ma.”
“Are you rushing off anywhere?” I looked around me theatrically.
She laughed. “But, Ma, I am sure your story is more interesting than mine. You have lived an interesting life, I am sure.” She seemed genuinely interested. “Okay. Let us make a deal. You tell me yours and I will tell you mine.” She was a businesswoman through and through, I thought.
“Okay,” I agreed.
I began my story. Her emotions flitted across her face — puzzlement, agreement, even disapproval.
But, in the end, it was Nwabulu’s story that ignited the fire.