'Cutting Season' Writing Competition: The Winners
2018-10-01 12:00:38 -
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By Matthew Price

 

When Ndidi discovered the rock inside the shattered window of her apartment, it was with disappointment rather than surprise. Although the crash had woken her in the night, she had not investigated. She knew what she would find in the morning. This was the second time this week.

Fortunately, the first time had been an especially hot night and so the stone had simply sailed through the open window and landed in the hallway. Her landlord had been profuse in his apologies and he promised her that it was random. It was a rough part of town, nothing else. He had even offered to contact the police, though Ndidi supposed he knew she would never consent to that.

Now, as she pondered the rock and scattered chips of glass, she could not bring herself to tell him. She resolved to ring that evening and explain that the window would need replacing. He would be understanding, as always. He liked Ndidi, perhaps because she always paid rent in cash.

She dropped the rock outside, taped a black plastic bag to the window frame as a temporary measure, and knelt to sweep up the broken glass. In that moment, however, it suddenly seemed an impossible task. For reasons she could not explain, she did not want to touch the glass, nor look at it, nor even think about it. And so, she left for work earlier than perhaps she needed to.

To kill time, and because today marked their final lesson together, Ndidi stopped to buy Awa a treat in the corner shop. She did not mind breaking her last fiver because she knew she would be paid again today. She might even receive a bonus. Deciding that she was no longer impolitely early, she made the short walk to the Okekes’ house, stiffening slightly as she passed the police station.

In the end, it was difficult to persuade Awa to concentrate on anything other than the Twix nestled in Ndidi’s pocket. The little girl’s eyes were roundly ravenous and her gaze retethered itself to the shining gold wrapper no matter how often Ndidi forced her attention back to exercises on grammar and vocabulary.

Eventually, Ndidi relented. “Go on then, take it. You worked hard this year. You deserve a treat. ”

Awa was uninterested in her words of praise; she cradled the bar in two hands, transfixed.

“Daalụ,” she said.

“Ah, ah! In English, girl. Otherwise, what was the point?”

“Thank you.” The foil wrapper crinkled in her tiny hands as she unwrapped the melting chocolate.

“Have you completed your last essay?”

Awa handed over her copybook, open on the page entitled ‘My Summer Plans’.

Ndidi read and corrected the piece in silence while Awa sucked on the chocolate like a pacifier. She circled errors in red biro where Awa had mixed up tenses, misspelled words, or else left out punctuation.

This kind of work required only minimal focus and so her mind wandered to her apartment and the broken window which, once replaced, would surely be broken once again. She pondered this until something she read captured her attention. She halted, her pen suspended an inch above the page.

“What’s wrong?” asked Awa.

Ndidi forced a smile. “Nothing is wrong. I was surprised, that’s all. You’re going back to Nigeria this summer?”

Awa nodded. The skin around her mouth was a shade darker where chocolate had smeared it and a string of a caramel trailed from her lower lip to her chin.

“What will you do there?”

Awa pointed at the page, as if to tell Ndidi to keep reading. Ndidi obliged. The essay mentioned visiting grandparents, eating fried plantain, and learning to surf at Ibeno beach. Ndidi raised her head to ask Awa another question, but at that moment the girl’s mother entered the room. She wore a floral apron and carried the earthy aroma of yams and spice.

“Ahn, ahn! We are still studying hard, I see.” She ran a hand through Awa’s braids and turned to Ndidi. “How has she progressed this term?” Her expression was eager.

“Very well. Her reading and written expression are very advanced for her age. I don’t think she will need any extra tutelage next year.”

In truth, Awa had never needed extra lessons, but her parents were keen that she realise her potential in school. Ndidi also suspected that half the reason she had this job was because the Okekes felt a sort of obligation to her as a fellow Nigerian.

Mrs Okeke beamed. “Excellent.” She turned back to Awa and licked her thumb to rub her chocolatey cheeks. “You know you are not allowed chocolate on weekdays. Did Ndidi give you this?” Awa shook her head, her eyes wide and innocent. She would never give Ndidi up to her parents if it meant she might get into trouble.

Her mother’s brash laughter filled the room. “Go and clean your face, nwa.” Awa did as she was told, her bare feet pattering away on the hardwood floor of the hallway.

“I didn’t know she wasn’t allowed chocolate, I—”

Mrs Okeke silenced her with a wave of her hand. “She deserves to be spoiled sometimes. You know, she is very fond of you. Maybe you could come and visit her next year, even if she does not need any more lessons. I’m sure she would be glad—”

“Are you taking her to Nigeria to be cut?” Ndidi was shocked by her own words. They seemed to tumble from her mouth of their own volition.

Mrs. Okeke blinked. “You forget yourself. It is impolite to inquire about our private affairs.”

Having spoken boldly once, Ndidi could not seem to stop. “It isn’t right. It’s illegal.”

Mrs Okeke’s voice was a scythe which sliced through the air. “Illegal o? What, will you go to the gardaí?”

Gardaí. The word was heavy with meaning. Mrs Okeke knew that Ndidi would never, could never, go to the police. But more than that, it was a word so native that Ndidi dared not say it aloud, and yet Mrs Okeke spoke it proudly. It was a badge of her assimilation, her authority.

When silence had settled in the room once again, Mrs Okeke added, almost softly: “You will not mention these affairs to my husband.”

As if summoned, Mr Okeke emerged from the hall. He grinned, oblivious to the simmering tension which seemed to Ndidi almost tangible. “Today was the last lesson, yes?”

Ndidi’s speech, which had come so freely only moments ago, now deserted her.

“Ndidi says that Awa has made excellent progress,” said Mrs Okeke.

“This is wonderful news!” He clasped Ndidi’s hand and slipped her a note, which she pocketed with polite discretion. Already she burned to look at it, to see whether it was the usual fifty or if she had been rewarded with a little extra. She revolted herself.

Awa pattered back into the room and hugged her father’s leg as though it were the trunk of some old and sturdy oak. Mr Okeke laughed. His laugh was big and brash, like his wife’s. “You have helped our daughter so much. We thank you.” He reached behind her to open the door.

As Ndidi turned to leave, she glanced at Mrs Okeke. Her expression betrayed no hostility. Instead, it was nakedly vulnerable in a way that suggested to Ndidi that her mind was far away. Ndidi shut the door and strode down the long driveway, almost breaking into a run.

***

Once she had put some distance between herself and the Okekes’ house, Ndidi took from her pocket the crisp note Mr Okeke had given her and saw that it was green. €100. It made her feel dirty. She imagined herself eating the food or wearing the clothes she would purchase with it, and for a moment she thought about tearing it in two. Then she remembered that she was behind on her rent and would have to ask her landlord to replace the broken window. Standing by her principles was a luxury she could not afford.

The money was, after all, a trivial issue. Her greater dilemma was what to do with the knowledge she now carried with her. If she went to the police, they would ask for her name and address and she would be unable to hide the truth. With a fresh twinge of shame, she realised that her mind was already made up, and she was only fooling herself by pretending to weigh the options. Mrs Okeke had been right. She walked past the police station without slowing, only stiffening slightly as she always did.

As she climbed the steps to her apartment, the black plastic bag she had taped to the window frame came into view. The summer breeze sucked it in and out so that the room within seemed to breathing. As Ndidi unlocked the door and moved inside, chips of glass crunched underfoot and she cursed. As she knelt to gather the pieces she had strewn across the hallway, she froze.

Pale sunshine spilled through the open doorway and glinted off the smithereens. Half-stooped, unmoving, Ndidi stared, and like old wounds splitting open, memories flashed upon her inner eye. The muggy heat of the Nigerian summer. A shard of glass catching sunlight, dripping blood. Pain and fearful confusion.

She had not known to feel violated. It did not occur to her to cry.

Now, she rose and fetched the dustpan and brush. She swept up the broken glass, binned it, and stepped outside. She took the steps down to the road two at a time. She did not pause to question what she was doing; her mind was tangled up in memory and reverie.

In minutes, she was at the police station. She was inside for the first time before her habitual fear returned to her. It burned with fierce intensity but somehow, she continued to move forward.

“Evening miss,” said the officer at the desk. “Can I help you?”

“Yes. A crime is going to take place. A little girl will be taken to Africa and cut.”

“Cut, miss?”

Ndidi swallowed. “Mutilated.” The word sickened her stomach, but she could not say why.

The man sighed gently. “Right.” He reached for a sheet of paper and a pen behind him and handed them to Ndidi.

“Fill this in with your name, home address, phone number, and any information you have about the crime. When you’ve finished, just…”

Ndidi held the paper by trembling fingertips. The abject terror which she now felt must have been etched on her face, because the man trailed off. Could she bribe him? The €100 was still in her pocket. Was there any way out? She forced her focus away from fear and towards Awa. Sweet, clever Awa, who loved Twix bars and did not want her friend to get into trouble. If this was what it took to save her, so be it.

Just then, the officer grabbed the paper and pen from Ndidi’s hands. “Actually, you know what? That won’t be necessary.” He crumpled the form and tossed it into a wastepaper basket behind him. “Why don’t you take a seat while I get us a coffee and then we can have a little chat. You won’t have to answer any questions you don’t want to. How does that sound?”

Ndidi managed a nod, and the garda gave her a small smile. She would never know what he had glimpsed in her terrified eyes to make him understand, just as she would never know what inspired someone to throw rocks at the windows of her apartment.

 

She moved in a trance to the waiting area and sat down. Before long, her cheeks were hot and wet. It was not for Awa that she wept; she would be safe now. Her tears were for the little girl in Nigeria, twenty years ago, who had not thought to shed any tears of her own.

 

The Rathfarnham native won first place in the 14-17 category for this story, about the shattering of illusions between different cultures.

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