Sentinel Literary Quarterly

Vol.2 No.2, January 2009. ISSN 1753-6499 (Online). www.sentinelquarterly.com

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Bernard Gieske
Genna Gardini
Helena Carolinska
Michael Lee Rattigan
Nnorom Azuonye
Ramesh Dohan
Sholeh Wolpé
Terri Ochiagha
Tolu Ogunlesi
Uche Nduka
Uchechukwu Umezurike
William Stephenson
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FICTION

 

Old Score

 

by Nnorom Azuonye

 

Ugo slides the letter back into the envelope it came in. Like the evil sword it is, there in its scabbard, it will not harm anyone. He gnashes his teeth in anger, glances at his wristwatch, and shakes his head from side to side. In just under one hour he shall be in another session at his osteopath’s. It is like confession. Every other week he goes to Mayer’s, surrenders himself to painful, trespassing but awkwardly pleasant stretches of his body and bones. With each session he borrows a few days’ relief from agony. “Serves me right for trying to be Schwarzenegger,” he pretends to tease, but really reprimands himself. He remembers the precise moment at a Seven Sisters gym he heard a click in his back that has condemned him to nearly a decade of hell. A moment of stupidity that has also taken away the courage he needs to return to Nigeria to settle an old score.

 

Ugo is definitely in no shape for a wrestling match. At fifty-two, and with a back waiting for a surgeon’s knife, something as physical as traditional Igbo wrestling might just cripple him for life. He tries to make a mental picture of his challenger, but the image is fuzzy. It is like trying to conjure the face of death. A man who has never met death cannot tell if death’s face is comforting at all or simply menacing. The only thing he can remember about Ogele’s face is his ugliness and his evil laughter, a satanic sound that has haunted his dreams for years. He is shocked that there are people who just don’t know how to let go of unpleasantness. Things have changed now. He must go back to Nigeria to face the demon he has been running away from. People that run away from battles tend to hope to fight another day, but he is a damaged battlefront deserter, and might after all be unable to fight. The stake is too high. He cannot keep running. He has to go home and settle the score with Ogele.

 

The trip is going to be a big deal. He does not wish to face his fate alone. This is something for men. No need to trouble his wife with it. He is grateful to God that he has a grown-up son who will understand. His son is a man of his own blood who will never judge him. He breathes out with a whisper of relief and calls Orji on his mobile phone and asks him to come downstairs, for a quick chat on a pretty delicate matter.

 

Orji sits by his father’s side in the warm sitting room and waits for the delicate matter to come out of his father’s mouth, but Ugo seems unable to find a suitable introduction. He fidgets like a shy little man, and his spirit seems to dance away with his eyes from the keen gaze of his son. He tries to make sense of it in his head. Orji would never judge him. Why then is he afraid to talk to him.

 

“You may after all get a chance to visit Nigeria.” Ugo finally says. He searches Orji’s face for a flicker of excitement, or any emotion at all, but finds none. The only thing the young man’s face seems to care about is what the bad news could be. His father is not a man ever failed by words, but suddenly he seems not to know what words are meant for anymore. It cannot be good, his face seems to say.

“There is a small niggling matter of a wrestling contest I have evaded for thirty-eight years.” Ugo tells Orji. He eases himself into the story, going back to a wrestling match in his village in which he had been thrown by Ogele, a member of his age-grade and a classmate. Ugo is almost close to tears as he recalls how Ogele humiliated him for many weeks afterwards with references to that match. He spoke of how he was taunted for so long that he became ill. In those days, even as a young boy, he tended to tackle issues head-on to stop them getting out of hand. “Therefore one early morning, I decided that I was not going to allow Ogele humiliate me to an early grave. I went to Ogele’s house, it must have been just before half past six in the morning, and challenged him to a rematch, many months ahead of the next New Yam festival. Wrestling in our village is always a part of the new yam festival called ikerike ji ona na mmanu.” He suddenly falls silent, wipes his eyes as they begin to dilate, and casts an embarrassed glance at his son. It is a first for him. He that everybody calls Obi Nkume, a heart of stone, sheds a tear in front of his son! He worries, rather stupidly, that Orji might actually be thinking it is a good thing to see a vulnerable, softer side of him, and begins to take quick breaths between words to gain composure. “He laughed in my face, the spotted squirrel. He laughed me out of his house.” Ugo talks with gritty bitterness, about how Ogele had said he would never belittle himself by getting into the arena again with a weakling like him. “He called me a weakling. That rat! O.K. so I was plump in those days. He taunted me, and called me ‘fat man lazy bones’. I was angry. I was so angry that I said to him, ‘I will wrestle you, Ogele, and I will throw you. If I don’t, I will give you my father’s land.’ Can you imagine that?” Ugo laughs at how ridiculous the stake he raised that day had been. What was he thinking? He swallows hard as he recalls the void of silence into which Ogele had descended, before laughing out suddenly, like a deranged man, extending his hand for a pact, saying “I accept. If you throw me, you can keep your father’s land and take my father’s land also.” They two fourteen-year-old boys had shaken hands on it and nothing more was said of the contest as they awaited the next New Yam festival. Ogele also stopped tormenting Ugo. The price of that peace was potentially expensive, but it had been worth it.

 

“This is heavy, Dad. Why are you telling me all these things now?” Orji asks.

 

Ugo takes out the envelope from his pocket and hands it to his son. He watches the changing expressions on Orji’s face as he reads the letter.

 

“Is this guy for real? Nearly forty years since your challenge, he wants you to wrestle with him now? At your age? With your bad back? Can’t you just tell him to go to hell?” Orji asks.

 

Ugo laughs again, this time with a tightness of lips and heaviness of heart, rasping through grating teeth that he wishes it were as easy as that. Without another word, he takes the letter back from Orji, puts it back into his pocket, and agonises to his feet.

 

“I have to go to Mayer’s.” Ugo announces, “At this rate I won’t be able to walk to the plane.” He chuckles.

 

“Why didn’t you wrestle this Ogele guy back then, Dad?” Orji asks.

 

Ugo smiles at his son. “Come. Drive me to Mayer’s, I will tell you in the car.” He says.

 

As Orji edges the Mercedes unto the road en route to Mayer’s, Ugo tells him how the circumstances of his life had changed beyond his control just a few weeks after he challenged Ogele. He had come home from school one day and was told by his father Okazuo, that the whole family was to travel to England for two weeks. It was for the Golden Jubilee anniversary of the marriage between Mr Stuart Moss and his wife Priscilla. Mr Moss used to be Okazuo’s boss in the Eastern Nigeria Civil Service many years before, and though he had been back to his own country for over twenty years, he had kept in touch with his old friend. Ugo had been too young to understand what happened exactly but he just found himself and his younger brother being enrolled in a school in Sheffield, and his parents went out everyday to work and nothing further was said about going back to Nigeria. Each time he asked if they were not going to return to Nigeria, he was told that it was not yet time. Time for what he was never told, and when he got tired of asking, he just went on with his studies.

 

“I wrote a letter to Ogele, you know” Ugo says. “I told him what happened, and that whenever I return, I would be ready for him. But he did not believe me. He wrote back to say I was well aware of the family plans, and that that was the reason I tricked him into the challenge. Don’t race him, please!”

 

“What?” Orji asks.

 

“Sorry, I thought you were racing that car” Ugo points at a blue sports car speeding away from them right through a red light.

 

“I don’t race people on the road, Dad, you must know that.” Orji says.

 

“If you didn’t I would not have…” he stops himself. “I am sorry, forget I said that.”

 

He  goes on with his story and tells his son that when he got older, he learnt that during that anniversary party, Mr Moss had introduced Okazuo to a British charity of some sort looking to recruit former officers of the old colonial regime for an off-the-record programme called ‘Healing The Social Wounds of Colonialism’ which sought to sponsor projects that would help Africans overcome lingering pains or complexes inflicted by the invasion of their homelands, and any untoward acts by the imperial colonising powers.

 

“That’s deep. You never told me any of these things before, Dad.” Orji says.

 

“That’s because I never saw any real benefit of the charity to our family except the relocation to Sheffield, if that is a benefit. Neither did I see any benefits at all to anybody in Africa for that matter.” Ugo said rather impatiently. “Well son, you know the rest of the story. I finished my education England, moved from Sheffield to London, and married a beautiful Canadian lawyer I met at a dinner party and before I realised what was happening, I am was fifty-two years old with a 21-year-old son.”

 

Orji edges the car into a bay outside Mayer’s and just before he turns off the engine, he asks Ugo why Ogele did not challenge him twelve years earlier when he went to Nigeria for a month.

 

“Because I was there to bury my father. Not even a mad man like Ogele would bring up a wrestling contest under those circumstances.” Ugo replies, and gets out of the car slowly.

 

*****

 

After about fifty minutes, Ugo returns to the car. It is only when he closes the door that Orji wakes up. Orji falls asleep at the drop of a hat anyway.

 

“Dad, I have been thinking about the letter from Ogele. I think I can do it.” Orji says and watches his father’s face light up in a smile.

 

The letter from Ogele says that the score has to be settled one way or another. Ogele is a dying man putting his house in order. The elders of the village have ruled that if Ogele and Ugo are no longer able to settle the score themselves, then their children must do it, and it must be done in their lifetimes.

 

“Are you sure?” Ugo asks.

 

“The recompense of the flippancy of fathers will be visited upon their sons.” Orji replies with a warm smile.

 

“I am afraid so.” Ugo replies proudly.

 

Orji frowns. He is saddened by the fact that the only reason his father has considered taking him home was to take part in a local wrestling march to save a piece of land he neither knew existed nor has any need for.

 

“I don’t need that land Orji. But your uncle Uwanka spends a lot of time there with your grandmother as he prepares to run for the local council elections. When your grandmother passes on, that land will belong to your uncle and I. God forbid that I should make him destitute over this. You will honour me. You will not back down now. You will wrestle Ogele’s son and you will throw him.” Ugo says.

 

Orji laughs. He says he knew his father had been play-acting all the while. The demanding, commanding father he has always known had been hiding inside the pitiable man he saw all day.

 

“I thought you were asking. Now you are ordering me to wrestle. Nothing will get me into that Arena” Orji snaps.

 

“Then I will do it. I always bear my cross. All I ask is that you come with me, so that if I get paralysed, you will see to it that I get immediate medical attention and arrange to bring me back here.” Ugo says.

 

“If you get paralysed! If you get paralysed? That is blackmail. Why are you doing this to me Dad? Was I the one that went challenging your mate in the wee hours of the morning?” Orji protests.

 

“You don’t have to come if you don’t want to” Ugo says, “but I must ask you a favour. Don’t mention the purpose of my trip to your mother.” He says.

 

Horrified by this Orji gasps in disbelief, “You will not tell mum? You will get on the plane, go to Nigeria and wrestle with your bad back and may come back in a wheelchair and you will not mention it to your wife?” he asks.

 

“She is a woman. She may say things that will cloud my judgment. Besides, her cultural background, like the one you have soaked up, might blind her to the reason. She may not reason with me. Do I have your word?” Ugo asks.

 

Orji feels like a man hit by a truck. His father is a complex man with many unsubtle attributes, but one thing Orji always felt he could swear by was his father’s total honesty with his mother. This very chauvinistic trait surfacing suddenly has never been there. Does it take one traditional African wrestling contest to awaken the savage in him? He looks his father over, almost expecting to see a physical feature on him that would make it all make sense that he is talking to a different man. But it is all seventeen stone, six feet of him in his green corduroy jeans and chequered V-necked jumper out of which the crisp cream collar of his shirt works around his enormous neck. He studies his father’s face, and wonders what secret each of the new lines appearing on his face each day holds. And then for the first time, he notices the vast strands of grey hair on his head and eyebrows. He simply hadn’t noticed they were that many before.

 

“Dad you are getting old.” Orji suddenly says.

 

“It feels as if it was just yesterday I turned twenty-one,” Ugo laughs. “You don’t have much time son.” He continues to laugh, so hard that tears course down his cheeks. But since Orji does not see the funny side of his comment, he does not laugh. He rather drives off without another word, into a darkening London evening.

 

After a few minutes of driving, Orji says he will go to Nigeria and will wrestle Ogele’s son, but only if Ugo told his mother why they were going. Ugo chews it over in his mind for about five minutes before saying in a very low voice. “Alright. I will tell your mother tonight. We leave in three days.”

 

*****

 

Three days later they arrive Port Harcourt International Airport. Uwanka’s driver meets them there. Apart from a phenomenally high number of black faces at the airport, Orji is pleasantly surprised that checkout at the airport is not anything as traumatic or dramatic as portrayed in the Airports programme shown on British television. However he notices something about every black voice he hears – it is unpretentious, free and assertive. There are no obviously false accents and he could swear he hears as many different languages as there might have been on the day the Tower of Babel fell.

 

“Port Harcourt is an oil city, so you have the Kalabaris, the Efiks, the Igbos, the Yorubas, the Hausas, the Itshekiris, the Ijaws, the Tivs. Everybody comes here for the money. Somehow they seem to find each other and just speak the language of their fathers.” Ugo explains as they head away from the airport to the village.

 

Two hours after leaving Port Harcourt airport, they arrive at Amaba-Alayi, his father’s village, where a big impromptu party erupts. It had begun with the odd old man that stuck his white head through the door without knocking and asked “Obu eziokwu na Ugo lotara?” which Ugo translates to Orji as “Is it true that Ugo has returned?”

 

“How do I say it is true?” Orji asks.

 

“Obu eziokwu.” Ugo replied.

 

And shortly after the twelfth head stuck through the door, it is Orji who eagerly tells every body ‘obu eziokwu.’ He feels welcome. At home. He receives more warm hugs than handshakes. The fraternal bonding is overpowering. His father is a little uneasy, and whispers to him not to eat anything anybody gives him until he has cleared it with him.

 

“Remember son, our family has enemies. Remember that.” Ugo says.

 

Orji does not want to think about enemies. All his life he has never had this much sense of community. For some reasons, his father does not interact much with the Nigerian community in England. Orji always felt it might have to do with the fact he married a white woman. Perhaps he did not like it when some people showed disapproval. In the village, he begins to feel that his tough father stayed away out of fear. He might be a coward inside, he reckons, and decides that it will take more than his father’s fear to stop him from having fun among these people who seem to have nothing but love for him.

 

Interestingly, most of the villagers speak Igbo to him as if he understood a word they said. He tries not to smile stupidly and nods his head even when he should have shaken it to disagree with something. Everybody laughs. It is all part of the fun. Later on, the men bring out their drums, and with their spirits freed by many gourds of palm-wine, and deer meat, they sing and make merry way into the night. Led by a spirited soloist, the men chant their responses.

 

- Onye chokwa i ga ala bekee

- ihe oma ihe oma

- Onye choo i su okwu bekee

- ihe oma ihe oma

- O maruhaala nge o si futa

- ihe oma ihe oma

- Dika okuko kpalatara bu aku 

- Ihe oma ihe oma

- A la agba ulo oku o bu ohia?

- mba nu

- A la agba ulo oku o bu ohia?

- mba nu

- A la eke nwoke obu o bu ewu?

- mba.

 

Orji is glad he brought his camcorder. He likes everybody and is glad to find that most people actually can and are willing to speak English to him. Therefore he makes news friends quickly and one of them Chidozie, a local wrestling hero who knows about the impending contest takes him aside to give him some tips.

 

“Don’t worry yourself, Chidozie, I am into kickboxing in London, you know.” Orji tells him.

 

Chidozie laughs and tells him that there is no violence involved in traditional wrestling, and that it was more of dancing, grace and trickery than strength. “I watched the Kickboxer video. Van Damme. That is common violence. Nonsense wickedness. Here in the village, wrestling is different. Do you understand?” Chidozie asks.

 

Orji nods his head. He wants to say something, but chooses not to. His head is working differently from Chidozie’s. This guy does not understand, he is not here to dance. He has come to fight for his father’s honour, and if he has to kick and punch Ogele’s son out of the village, that’s exactly what he is going to do.

 

 “You look strong. If you put some wiseness on top you will win. Finish. When the xylophone begins to play, listen to it. Forget your father, forget your mother, forget what your father and Ogele are dragging, just say to yourself, ‘the xylophone is saying my back will not touch the ground’, allow yourself to be carried by the cheering and clapping of the crowd. Never look away from the eyes of your opponent, lean forward and keep your feet away from your opponent’s feet unless you are sweeping them off the ground. If he sweeps at your feet, move them out of the way, one by one, fast. Remember, if he successfully sweeps or lifts your two feet from the ground at the same time, you have lost. If he throws you on your back, you have lost. So keep your feet on the ground.” Chidozie explains.

 

“That’s interesting. Interesting! Can we practice now?” Orji asks.

 

“Why? Is it because your uncle has put on the plant and there is electric light? No, my brother, night is not for winking.” Chidozie says.

 

“Alright bro, we’ll do this tomorrow. God bless.” Orji hugs him again and he leaves with two of his friends.

 

Orji returns to the house and joins his father in his room. Ugo has pumped himself full of Nurofen and looks a bit stoned. They stay up for about another hour talking, mostly about how terrible Priscilla had felt about not knowing of the contest all through the years of their marriage. They are pleased anyhow that she gave her blessing to Orji and had prayed for his success before they flew out. She would have come with them if she did not have to work.

 

“Dad, this land may not mean much to you, but it does to me now. I will not lose it. I think this is where I belong.” Orji says, moving the discussion topic away from his mother.

 

“Don’t worry son, the novelty will wear off and you will run back to England.” Ugo says with a knowing smile.

 

“I don’t think so, Dad. The difference between you and me is that I have found what I have always wanted. For once I don’t feel like a balloon floating over hostile grounds, through tight gaps in branches of trees, trees with long thorns, if that makes sense. This is where my feet have felt as one with earth. But you father, you are afraid to find a treasure you lost years ago, because you don’t want to confront the fact that your sojourn in a foreign land has impoverished your life.” Orji says.

 

“I don’t need you to psychoanalyse me, Orji. And I have told you to stop going to that Marcus Garvey group. Those people have their own agenda. Stop talking poetry to me. I want to know when my son speaks and when his group speaks. As for this land, you love this land? Save it. I don’t. If I had my health, I would save it for you, but please don’t delude yourself for one second that you know what has enriched or impoverished my life. It is afterall my life. Good night son, try to sleep well, you have big days ahead of you.”  Ugo says, and raises his legs unto the bed.

 

“Come on Dad, how can you take the son of Amadioha to a night of fireworks and ask him to shut his eyes?” Orji asks.

 

“What do you know about Amadioha?”

 

“Just what Grand-dad used to tell me. Amadioha is the great God of thunder and lightening.”

 

“Well he is also the God of rain. So he knows when to send down the rain to wash away fires started by his lightening. Like this is the time to stop talking and go to sleep.” Ugo said with a hint of finality.

 

“Good night Dad.” Orji concedes, and lays back on the mattress spread on the floor for him. He is unable to sleep.

 

*****

 

Ugo walks side by side with his son and Chidozie to the market square. The music from the xylophone has reached fever pitch, and a big crowd has gathered in a perfect circle. They look through gaps between heads into the arena where a fierce match is taking place. In a few minutes it is over and the victor grabs the Onanikpo, a champion wrestler’s rattling staff and begins to wave it in the air inviting a challenge.

 

Chidozie pushes his way through the crowd and steps in to face the man. The champion digs the Onanikpo into the ground and as the music reaches a crescendo, Chidozie is thrown after five minutes of stretching muscles and breathless gasps from women. On three occasions, Chidozie nearly got the man, but he just could not make it.  And as Chidozie walks off with his head bowed, the champion raises the Onanikpo again, and this time another young man challenges him.

 

“Oh God, Orji, it is Emeruwa, Ogele’s son. Take good look at your opponent.” Chidozie says.

 

Emeruwa is a frightening sight. He stands no shorter than six foot four and has muscles that look like they are carved out of a rock. The match is over in less than one minute. Then Emeruwa takes the Onanikpo and begins to prance around, but nobody steps forward to challenge him.

 

“What are you waiting for?” Ugo asks Orji, “Nobody is challenging him because the entire village knows why he is here.”

 

“You want me to face that thing?” Orji asks, “That’s the bloody Hulk.”

 

“This is where your feet have felt as one with earth my son. You have to earn it.” Ugo replies.

 

“OK. What is the worst that can happen?” Orji says and steps out to face Emeruwa.

 

“White boy come fight for him coward papa” Emeruwa says aloud, and the crowd breaks into a roaring laughter.

 

Orji says nothing, only beckons on him to get on with it. The music is worked into a frenzy. The crowd grows wild. The more Emeruwa comes at Orji, the more he dances around him, pawing at his shoulder like a tiger, and looking for one opportunity to sweep those strong feet off the ground. Finally Emeruwa gets hold of him by the shoulders and flings him to the left and to the right. Orji manages to keep at least one foot on the ground, but never gets balanced enough himself to give Emeruwa any concerns. He keeps resisting the urge to kick the man in the testicles. He resists the urge to kick Emeruwa, and knows it in his heart that if he were  allowed to kick, he would take this man out. He knows it, but with the rules, he feels totally bound, and suddenly, without seeing it coming, Emeruwa lets go of his shoulders and dives straight for his legs, grabs him on both legs and tips him over on his back. The music ceases. The chanting stops. The crowd falls mournfully silent. Orji springs to his feet and it takes all the discipline in him not to attack Emeruwa and kick him into the trees.

 

Disappointed and hurt, Ugo takes his son home. Although everybody keeps telling him he had nothing to be ashamed of and that Emeruwa was unbeatable anyway, Orji cannot not help feeling that he has just lost his father’s land, and that his grandmother would live out the rest of her days effectively on somebody else’s property. It is not a pleasant thing to know and he feels a small pang of hatred towards his father for placing that responsibility on him. 

 

But as Orji nurses his wounds, mostly mental wounds, there is a knock on the door and when Ugo opens, it is Ogele and his son Emeruwa.

 

“You can’t wait to claim your trophy, I see” Ugo says.

 

“Shut your mouth Ugo. You were a coward then, you are a coward now. You are not half the man your son is.” Ogele replies.

 

“What do you want, Ogele? Can’t you wait for my mother to die first before coming for the land?” Ugo is seething and just stops short of punching Ogele in the eye.

 

“My son wants to talk to your son. That’s why we are here.” Ogele says. “I have nothing to say to you. My business with you is done.” Ogele says.

 

At this point, Orji anxiously searches Emeruwa’s face for a hint of what he wanted to say. He hopes the man wants a rematch, because he wants to do it differently. He wants a second chance to save the land.

 

Emeruwa smiles. He actually looks human and pleasant when he smiles, and it is a pretty good smile. “My father and your father are both fools.” Emeruwa says. “There is no sense for your father to continue running. No sense. He can return home now. You have redeemed him.” Emeruwa said.

 

“You think my father has not been back here because of your father?” Orji asks.

 

“Everybody knows.” Emeruwa replies.

 

“That is a lie.” Ugo protests.

 

Emeruwa ignores him and continues to address Orji. “But you, you are a man. You have no fear. If you have courage to face me again next year, whether you win or you lose, I will not take your father’s land.” Emeruwa says.

 

“What is the catch?” Orji asks.

 

“The catch? What do you mean?” Emeruwa asks.

 

“It makes no sense. Your father has wanted this all his life. Then you win it and you want to give it back. What are you really after?” Orji asks.

 

“I don’t want anything from you white boy - ”

 

“I am not a white boy - ”

 

“I am saying let us not be fools like our fathers. You don’t want?” Emeruwa asks.

 

“Are you kidding? I want to face you next year. You have a deal. I will thump your big back so hard on the ground it will leave a crater in the market square. The crater will be so deep it will take the villagers two weeks to fill it up.” Orji rattles on and on, and then gives Emeruwa a big hug, fighting back tears, he whispers, “Thank you.”

 

“I have a big match at Otamkpa next tomorrow. Come and watch, and learn.” Emeruwa said.

 

“Well I don’t know where that is, but I am sure Chidozie will take me there.”

 

“Good.” Emeruwa offers his hand again for a handshake. “I will call you Orji from now until…forever.”

 

The end.

 

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Nnorom Azuonye

is the Editor of Sentinel Literary Quarterly and Nollywood Focus magazines. The Founder & Administrator of Sentinel Poetry Movement, he is also Chief Operating Officer, Eastern Light EPM International - an entertainment,  publishing, and marketing services company.

 

 

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