Written by Bunmi Sofola
~Vanguard, Nigeria. Sunday, May 22, 2016
Joyce is a childhood friend I see often. When I called on her a few months back she looked visibly flustered. I was at a loose end and and had gone to see her for our usual natter. "Am I glad to see you," she said, ushering me into a chair in the kitchen where she was making up different mouth-watering dishes. I certainly had called at a good time. I patted myself on the back, as I tucked in with relish. "Henrietta is back," she informed as we ate. I looked blank. "You haven't forgotten all about her have you? Mercy's second daughter!" The penny finally dropped.
Mercy is Joyce's first cousin. She's always been close to Mercy's mother, Louisa, who is her big aunty. A woman-of-the-world, Louisa is the proud mother of three children from three different fathers. Nothing unusual these days where couples exchange partners like goods from a super-market, the snag is that the first and last 'husbands' were rich while Henrietta's father couldn't be described as a silver-spoon kid.
Henrietta knew she wasn't the apple of her mother's eyes and she behaved accordingly. "Her nasty father is fetish and must have used juju on my daughter," Louisa had said any time she had the opportunity. "Why else would Mercy give in to a rough-neck like that" Look at Henrietta's two siblings. Mercy's first daughter, Tina, the daughter of a renowned structural engineer, is a proper lady and her father sent her to the best public school as soon as she finished secondary school here. She's a real lady, thanks to her dad's impeccable pedigree. Pity his snooty self-centred wife refused to even think of him taking on Mercy as a second wife … When Mercy met Henrietta's father, Joyce wasn't exactly shouting for joy. The only advantage is that he agreed to marry her and be a step-dad to Tina," Joyce had told me. "But Tina's dad told him he should forget it – Tina had a dad who was proud of her. Anyway, they got married.He was a divorcee with two children and lived in the seedy part of the city. Still, Mercy, who was then a top personnel manager in a huge firm agreed to come down to his level because of love. In no time at all, the beast showed his claws and by the time Henrietta was only six, it was obvious they hated each other. It was inevitable that the marriage crashed and Mercy relocated abroad, leaving Henrietta in her mum's care.
"Louisa couldn't hide her distaste for the poor girl. Any time she put a foot wrong, she shrieked at her. 'The horse behind always takes a running cue from the one in front', she used to say. 'If you are blind to see how fast the front horse is running, shouldn't you look at the horse behind you in case it catches up with you?' This rear horse is Mercy's third child, a longed for son she had for another colleague just before she left for England.
Thankfully, the lad's father took her in, thanks to his wife's 'understanding' nature, and the poor boy wanted for nothing.
He later went abroad with his dad's family. Henrietta was the only child left in the country, but Mercy promised she could come to stay as soon as she finished secondary school. "Henrietta, who'd made some friends on her previous annual holidays abroad in the tower block her mum lived in quickly fit in with her old 'gang' when she came to England. So for the next couple of years, whilst Henrietta studied for her "A" Levels in preparation to getting into a university, Joyce regaled me with her escapades with the 'Jammo' boys on the block. "They are nothing better than yobs," she used to complain. "They wouldn't go to school if they could get away with it and their parents couldn't make them! Henrietta had been caught smoking once or twice, and I'm sure it would be a matter of time before she tries the hard stuff if care is not taken." Now, Henrietta was back. So what happened? "Hump," Joyce sighed dramatically, "her mother happened to catch her, and one of her rough-necked friends having sex at the bottom of the staircase! She'd come early to get some medical details she left behind to meet this shocker. She was enraged to say the least. She yelled at the lad who'd quickly scampered, then virtually hauled Henrietta to the flat, nearly beating the daylight out of her in frustrated anger. The next day, when Mercy came back from work, the police had already been, leaving a message she should call at the station as soon as she could. Mercy was puzzled as to why the police would want a word with her, but she went anyway.
"She told me she thought she wasn't hearing right when the Police told her Henrietta had lodged a complaint with them that she'd been physically assaulted. 'We're talking about my daughter here,' she napped. 'How I discipline her is none of your business.' But what Mercy failed to realise then was that the law in Britain regarding how you deal with your child is different from the law in Nigeria. By British law, a child is owed a duty of care by his parents up to the age of 16. The parents have so right to kick out their children no matter how bad their behaviour and if a parent laid their hand on any child, that child had legitimate recourse to the law – and the law would take its course. Which is one of the reasons why teenagers are virtually throwing stones at neighbours and vandalising properties with only their writs slapped by the authority.
"Mercy was lucky, she was seriously cautioned and the caution was recorded. When next she was violent with her own daughter, she would be charged. She came home to find a sullen Henrietta. The fool smirked as the mother said nothing. In the meantime, she raked up all the money she'd managed to save for a rainy day, telling herself the rainy day was here. She then told Henrietta they were going to Nigeria' on' a short visit during Henrietta's first-term holiday. She lied that her grandma had died and they were going for her funeral. When Henrietta arrived Nigeria and saw that her granny was alive and well, she knew she'd walked into a trap.
She was over 16, the legal age in Britain where you can walk out on your parents without them making you go back home. If she'd known, she could have run to the authorities who would provide her with temporary accommodation. She could even move in with any man over 16 if she so wished without anyone insisting she goes back home. Louisa her granny was far from happy at seeing her. 'Blood would smell,' she sniffed, 'you're the true daughter of your good-for-nothing father!'
The next day, Henrietta called her father and he promptly came to the house to insist Henrietta spend some of her holiday with him. Mercy had no choice but to agree as Henrietta clung to her father like an ally. Now the dad is saying that over his dead body would he allow Louisa who never married, and Mercy who'd had three relationships that resulted in three children, raise her only daughter. That Henrietta misbehaved, he said, was due to the bad example set by these two wayward women. Can you imagine the affront? A man who, never bothered to chip in to Henrietta's keep abroad, because, according to him he never encouraged her to go! "Mercy has since gone back, but heaven only knows what Henrietta's future now holds … I told her things would work out now that Henrietta is with her father and her half-siblings. Things are complicated enough without anybody wanting to rush in with solutions that are not needed at the moment.