Previously on The Housewives’ Tale…
It has been weeks after the first day in court for Aunty Esther’s divorce case. I don’t even understand what happened in court. It all ended before I could really start paying attention. Chinwe says it’s called “mentioning”. Anyway, the matter is coming up again tomorrow, and Uncle Donatus is in our house again, being his usual prickly and irritating self. This case cannot end soon enough. He’s influencing my husband little by little. The things that weren’t an issue before are now issues for my husband, and we end up arguing before bedtime anytime Donatus is around. That vile man always has something to say about everything in my home, from the fact that my husband gave me a car to the fact that I insist on knowing what everyone wants for dinner in the morning. He thinks that I should be able to pound yam on a whim! It’s no surprise why his marriage to Aunty Esther didn’t work out.
I hear him swearing to my husband that he’ll make sure that Aunty Esther does not get custody of their children, not even visitation rights. I really hope that doesn’t happen. I believe Aunty Esther has suffered enough from being alienated from her kids for all these years. When I recount his threats to Chinwe, she just laughs like it’s nothing. I hope it’s really nothing.
I am prepared to be in court to support Aunty Esther tomorrow.
“Don’t you think that you should try to improve yourself a little bit, and find something doing that can earn you some money, no matter how small?” Chinwe asks after I have narrated the little changes Uncle Donatus is bringing to my home, while we wait for the court to sit.
“Honestly, I should! I’m just wondering where to start from. I’ve been home for four years and counting. And the yeye man keeps making comments about how I am unproductive and how all I do is spend his son’s money. As if staying home and raising a child is being unproductive!” I say this with a sneer.
“It’s not being unproductive, dear. But you should think really hard about what you want to do.”
“What do you think? I’ve started buying and selling business severally, but that never works for me. People keep owing me and I find it hard to market products.”
A beep on Chinwe’s phone delays her response. She checks the message and taps out a quick reply.
“Put your phone on ‘vibrate’ right now, so that you don’t forget,” she says to me.
“Ok.” I fish out my phone from my bag. “So, what do you suggest?” I ask, trying to move back to our discussion.
“Aunty Esther is running a bit late,” Chinwe comments instead on the text she’d just received. “I hope she’ll be here before her case is called. I would like to do her examination-in-chief today and move this case along.”
“Oh! I wondered why she isn’t here yet sef!” I say while looking around. “Even Donatus isn’t here either. What’s up with that?”
“I hope he isn’t up to any plan to frustrate this proceeding and ask for adjournment oh!” Chinwe says darkly.
“Can he do that? Will the judge allow that?” I ask, alarmed.
“He can do that, but, I know this court. He won’t be allowed any frivolous adjournment,” Chinwe says, still frowning. “Let me go back to the front. The court should start in a few minutes.” She rises from my side.
“Alright,” I say. “I thought Mercy said she’d be coming though,” I add, as she adjusts her gown.
“Yeah, she chatted me up this morning. Maybe she’ll come later. We’ll finish up our discussion after court.” Then she turns and begins to walk down the courtroom’s aisle to the front, her gown billowing purposefully behind her.
“Esther Lebechi Ugwu versus Donatus Odinkemma Ugwu, suit number HC/3047 for hearing!” the court clerk calls out, handing a file over to the judge, a stately-looking woman with short graying hair and a stern bespectacled gaze.
Chinwe rises. “With utmost humility, my Lord,” she says, “Chinwendu Okonkwo, for the petitioner. The petitioner is present in court, and we’re ready to go on with the hearing, my Lord.”
She sits, while Donatus rises and begins, “With humility, my Lord, Donatus Ugwu for the respondent.”
“Are you the respondent?” the Judge asks.
“Yes, my Lord,” Donatus replies.
“Why are you representing yourself, and why are you improperly dressed?” The Judge leans forward to peer sternly at him above her glasses. “Why do you think it is okay to appear without your wig, counsel?”
“My Lord, in the case of Ganni Fawehinmi versus the Nigerian Bar Association and 4 others, in 1986, the Supreme Court held that the defendant, who is a lawyer, can represent himself provided that he appears without a wig –”
“Counsel, I know all about that controversial case,” the Judge says, cutting off Uncle Donatus from what was obviously gearing up to be a long, winding protestation. “But for things to be done elegantly, I prefer that you get a counsel to appear on your behalf. Did you come with any counsel, counsel?”
“No, my Lord,” Donatus says stiffly. “My Lord, I honestly do not believe that anyone can handle this case for me better than I can. I hereby urge this court to countenance the decision of the apex court and let me stand in for myself.”
“Counsel, this is my court and I insist that you get a counsel to represent you. I can grant you a very short adjournment on that ground.”
“As the court pleases,” the lawyers in the courtroom chorus.
“My Lord,” Donatus says in a tone that reveals his unwillingness to back down, “I would hate to have to appeal or state a case to the Court of Appeal on this issue. I have utmost respect for this court, and I would not like to drag this. The lower courts are bound to uphold the rulings of a higher court, provided that it hasn’t been upturned. I vehemently urge your Lordship to let me represent myself, knowing full well that it’s within my right as a respondent and an honourable member of the bar.”
“If I may, my Lord…” An elderly lawyer rises.
“Yes, go on, counsel” the Judge says.
“My Lord, I speak as amicus curiae. It is obvious that my learned colleague is persistent on representing himself. Even though I find his swagger disgusting and irrational, I would urge you to let him go ahead and dig the hole in which he will surely bury himself.”
The unexpectedness of the lawyer’s cheek causes laughter to burst from me before I recognize my amusement. I clap a hand to my mouth, only to observe laughter rippling across the courtroom. Donatus looks up from his file in mild confusion at the court’s reaction; he obviously hadn’t been paying attention when the lawyer was speaking.
“Very well, counsel,” the Judge directs to Donatus. “You can go ahead and represent yourself.”
“As the court pleases, my Lord,” Donatus beams.
“Be that as it may,” the Judge isn’t done, “I will not allow any other counsel to appear on your behalf.”
“You won’t, my Lord. I guarantee you that,” Donatus says with that grating pomposity of his.
Not knowing what this means for Aunty Esther and Chinwe, I glance in Chinwe’s direction to see her smiling ferally.
“Go ahead, counsel,” the Judge addresses the petitioner’s table.
“As the court pleases,” Chinwe says. She stands and motions Aunty Esther to the witness box.
The court clerk rises to stand beside the box. “Are you a Christian, a Moslem or a traditionalist?” he poses the question at Aunty Esther.
“I am a Christian,” she replies in a low voice.
“Please speak to the court!” the clerk orders.
“I am a Christian,” she says, louder and more confident.
“Place your hand on this Bible,” the clerk says, and proceeds to administer the oath.
“Please, tell this honourable court your name,” Chinwe directs at Aunty Esther.
The next several minutes are characterized by Chinwe walking Aunty Esther through her account of her marriage to Donatus. It is a most horrifying account that fans my dislike for her soon-to-be ex-husband with each word that drops from Aunty Esther’s mouth. There’s the abuse, the violence, the maltreatment, his kicking her out of their house without any of her personal belongings, her coming back months later for her certificates, the fight that ensued in the presence of their kids when he caught her at it, her escape amidst her children’s cries of “Mummy, please don’t leave us”, her arrest and detainment at the police station for three days without food or visitation because she went to see her children in their school, her being made to sign a statement under duress, stating that she was a kidnapper before she was released, how she stayed away from her kids, praying that her husband’s heart would change towards her. She ends her harrowing testimony with what she is seeking from the court – a divorce and custody of her children.
“That will be all for this witness, my Lord,” Chinwe says to the Judge, before sitting down.
A moment passes during which there’s a stir of stupefaction and bile directed at the respondent’s table from the court. Aunty Esther is done with her testimony, and there aren’t a lot of dry eyes in the courtroom. Her countenance however is hard with determination. She is obviously done with tears.
“Counsel,” the Judge calls on Donatus, “your witness. Do you have any cross examination for her?”
Donatus rises with a swagger. I catch the glimpse of a smile on his face as he shuffles papers on his table.
“Mrs. Ugwu, do you mind me referring to you as Esther or Lebechi?” he asks.
“Yes, I mind. Call me Mrs. Ugwu,” Aunty Esther answers, the anger in her eyes glinting like the edge of a sword in sunlight.
“Why? You still want my surname? Why are you here then?” He laughs at his sally, looking around to see if anyone was laughing with him.
No one is.
“Objection, my Lord!” Chinwe fumes as she shoots to her feet.
“Yes, counsel…” the Judge says.
But Chinwe stays silent while she glares at Donatus, who makes a show of adjusting his robe.
“You should sit down, counsel,” she bites out at him.
“I should what?” Donatus instantly bristles. “You don’t tell me what you do, you this small girl!”
“My Lord,” Chinwe turns to address the Judge, “I am standing, and I raised an objection. He is meant to sit down.”
“My Lord, I’m not stopping her from raising her objection,” Donatus counters, outrage at Chinwe’s audacity dripping from his voice. “I however draw a line at her ordering me to sit down. Who does she think she is?”
“Your opposing counsel, that’s who,” Chinwe shoots back.
“That’s enough, counsel,” the Judge interjects, her bespectacled gaze glinting in Chinwe’s direction. Then turning to Donatus, she says, “And, Counsel, she’s right. Sit down. You don’t keep standing when another counsel is on his or her feet. Do I need to teach you court etiquettes anew?”
“My Lord, nothing stops her –” he begins to protest.
“Sit down, counsel, or I’ll charge you with contempt for court!”
“As the court pleases,” the lawyers in the courtroom chorus, most of them sighing with disgust.
Donatus permits himself a microsecond of injured defiance before taking his seat.
“Counsel, your objection?” the Judge says to Chinwe.
“My Lord, the respondent is asking the witness irrelevant questions. He’s goading her in an obvious and frankly underhanded attempt to get her to lose her cool.”
“My Lord,” Donatus flares as he leaps to his feet again, “it’s a simple question –”
“Mr. Ugwu, the questions you’ve asked so far are grossly irrelevant. Please, stick to relevant questions and stop wasting the time of this court,” the Judge cautions.
“Very well, my Lord,” Donatus says. He turns to face Aunty Esther again. “Can you repeat to this court, for the purpose of emphasis, what you do for a living?”
“I am a banker,” Aunty Esther answers.
“Speak up, will you? You’re not talking to me, you’re addressing the court!” he screams at her.
“Counsel,” this time, the Judge beats Chinwe to the objection, her tone testy as she addresses Donatus, “this is your last warning. Desist from badgering the witness.”
“Do you, sometimes, get sent to clients’ houses and offices to collect money for the bank?” Donatus continues, barely acknowledging the judge’s chastisement.
“Yes,” Aunty Esther replies.
“Do you swear, before this honourable court, that you have never slept with any of these clients?”
“Objection, my Lord!” Chinwe is the very demonstration of indignation as she rises again. “This is an indicting question, and definitely irrelevant to the case, my Lord.”
“My Lord, it’s relevant,” Donatus counters, looking put-out by Chinwe’s frequent interruptions of his roll. “According to the petition, she’s asking for the custody of my children. I can’t have a wayward woman having custody of my kids!”
“My Lord, let’s assume without any concession that this – the witness dalliance with her bank customers – actually happens, how can it compare with the respondent’s flagrant cheating on his wife, oftentimes carrying on with other women with no regard for his children’s welfare and knowledge? And, my Lord, note that he doesn’t deny this in either his response to the suit or his counter-claim.”
“Objection sustained,” the Judge says. “Please, counsel, keep to the facts of the case as front loaded.”
“Erm…erm… That will be all, my Lord,” Uncle Donatus stammers, having being put off balance. He shoots a dark look at Chinwe as he sits back down.
I expel a breath. I didn’t even realize that I’d been holding my breath through most of the proceeding so far.
“Do you have any re-examination?” the Judge asks Chinwe.
“No, my Lord.”
“Madam, you can go back to your seat now,” the Judge says to Aunty Esther.
As Aunty Esther steps down, the Judge turns to Donatus. “Respondent, it’s your turn at the witness box. You can work your magic now.” The wryness of her tone causes another ripple of laughter in the courtroom.
“So, how does it work? You ask yourself questions, or do you just tell us the story?” the Judge says, amidst more laughter.
I see Donatus’ profile harden into the angry lines of one who isn’t finding the jabs amusing at all. I have to say, I am thoroughly enjoying his discomfiture, even though I suspect he’ll bring that aggression back to my home.
I sigh as the Judge continues, “Anyway, however you do it, it should be fun to watch. So, go ahead.” She gestures to the witness box that Aunty Esther has just vacated.
“My Lord, I ask for adjournment in order to put my house in order,” Donatus says stiffly.
“Which house again?” the Judge blurts, a question that sends the court into another mirthful ruckus. “You assured me that you were ready for this hearing. I decide when I’m done hearing a case for the day, not you, counsel. So, please, quit wasting the time of this court.”
“My Lord, I didn’t imagine that we’d finish with the petitioner today and so soon, let alone begin with the examination of the respondent. Please, my Lord, I crave the indulgence of this honourable court to adjourn, so that I can prepare the questions for examination-in-chief for the respondent.”
“Counsel, have you ever appeared in my court before?” the Judge asks, leaning forward, the air around her electric with her vexation.
“No ma,” Donatus replies.
“Where are the attachment students?” the Judge asks the court.
A few hands shoot up from the galley.
“This is a very teachable moment,” she says to the court. “Always know your court before you know your law. If Mr. Ugwu here had bothered to know how I work, he would have known that I don’t grant unnecessary adjournments. Now, if I can turn back to the court records of this case upon mention…” – she flips the pages of her records – “I stated clearly,” – she proceeds to read – “counsels should make ready their cases for the next adjournment date and be ready to proceed by then.” She looks up. “But, obviously, Mr. Ugwu wasn’t paying attention. Who can tell me where this rule is laid down?”
Hands go up as a student stands and respond, “Rules of professional conduct, Rule 1(c), my Lord.”
“Good! Again, anyone could have told Mr. Ugwu, if he’d bothered to find out, that Court 18 under Justice Anyiam does not grant unnecessary adjournments.” Then turning her gelid stare to Donatus, she says, “Counsel, I will indulge you just this once, because you’re appearing out of your jurisdiction, and stand down this matter until the next three hours. I’m sure that will be enough for you to prepare your questions.”
“As the court pleases.”
“Call the next case please,” the Judge says, clearly dismissing us.
“Akudolu versus Oguadimma…” the clerk starts calling out, while Chinwe and Donatus both rise and bow out of the court with their files.
I have to wait for Donatus to get far before I leave the court. My phone vibrates with Chinwe’s message: We’ll be right in front of the court. Mercy is here too.
I sit and count to hundred, then, I slip out of the court just as the petitioner of the new case is calling his witness to the witness box.
“He shot himself in the foot by arguing with the judge, even threatening to state a case on her! Jesus! That man’s arrogance will be his downfall!” I hear Chinwe chatter animatedly to Mercy and Aunty Esther as I approach them.
“Hellooooo,” I singsong to announce my arrival.
“Hi!” Mercy and Aunty Esther chorus as I give them each a hug.
“I didn’t even know that you came!” Aunty Esther says to me.
“I had to come and lend my support. Speed things up, if I can, with my mind. Your husband wants to wreak havoc in my home.”
“Whose husband?” Aunty Esther deadpans, causing the other two women to burst out in laughter.
“So, what now?” I ask Chinwe.
“We’re reconvening in three hours for his testimony.”
“I can’t be there, sadly. Gabby’s school will be out by then,” I say.
“Me too,” Mercy intones. “I have to report back to work before the close of business.”
“That’s alright,” Aunty Esther says. “You ladies have really tried for me. Ada,” – she faces me – “I can’t thank you enough. I just can’t…” Her words choke to a stop as her eyes begin to fill up with tears.
“No, no, no, aunty! Don’t cry,” I say to her while drawing her in for another hug. “You know it’s the right thing to do for your kids. Just keep being strong, you hear?”
“My regards to Gabby,” she says, waving to me and Mercy as we leave.
Just as we step out of the parapet shade before the courthouse, I catch the familiar sight of Donatus’ car as he drives past.
“Oh my God!” I whisper, flinching beside Mercy and whipping up my hand to shield the side of my face that is exposed to him. “Oh my God, oh my God!”
“What?” a perplexed Mercy queries.
“Do you think he saw me?”
“Who – the man in that car?” she says, staring after Donatus’ car.
“Yes! That’s Uncle Donatus’ car nau!”
“I don’t think he saw you. He was staring straight ahead.”
“Ah! Let it be oh! I can’t shout.” We resume walking and I ask, “Did you come with your car?”
“No jaré! Some idiot scratched me yesterday. I took it to the panel beater. I can’t be driving scratch-scratch car nu!”
“Ewoo! Ndo. So, I’m dropping you off, abi?”
“Yes, if you don’t mind.” Moments later, we are climbing into my car, and she says, “Can we stop for shawarma, please?”
“I need to cut down on fattening foods oh,” I say as I pat my burgeoning midriff, “before I’ll be as big as room and parlour.” I chuckle. “Well, one shawarma won’t kill me, right?”
“Right-o!” Mercy concurs.
We are seated under a shade, waiting for our shawarma, both of us focused on the screens of our phones.
“Ada!” Mercy suddenly whispers urgently.
“What’s up?” I say, looking up from my phone.
“Is that not that babe your brother-in-law almost married?” she says, looking directly behind me. “No, no, no! Don’t look back yet!” she hisses when I begin to turn around. “I’ll tell you when she looks away. Wow! She’s looking radiant and happy. As if say no be her them disgrace like that not too long ago.”
“Abeg, I need to look!” I say protestingly.
“Chere nu! Wait joor! If you look, she’ll see you and know that we’re talking about her.”
“Ehen?! Am I scared of her?” I say, starting to turn, and then changing my mind, I ask, “Do you have a mirror?”
“Yes, why?” Mercy responds.
“Let me use it and look nau! Give me.” I wag my fingers at her in a gesture of demand.
Mercy lets out a peal of laughter as she hands me her compact case. “Aproko will kill you, this woman.”
“Eehn! Make e be like that,” I say. I snap open the compact and raise the mirror, adjusting it to see the person behind me.
Behold, my arch nemesis, Leticia!
“Hey! She’s the one oh!” I mutter, observing that familiar dark, sensuous figure that had almost entrapped my husband’s brother, Ifeanyi.
Mercy keeps laughing at my antics.
“Wait! Is she coming here?” I ask, squinting at the small mirror.
“Yes… Wait, no. She’s walking past.”
“Kai! I still can’t believe that drama in their village!” I say.
“I swear! The thing be like Nollywood film, especially the part about those children!” Mercy says.
“Poor kids! I wonder the kind of life –”
“Hello, ladies!” that familiar husky voice that I have come to loathe more than anything singsongs beside me.
I look up to see Leticia pull out a chair and settle in next to us.
“Leticia,” I say, an acid smile stretching my lips, “or should I say Ogbenyeanu? Or perhaps Chioma? Which one are you answering these days?” God, it feels so good for me to be so expressive of my dislike for her.
Mercy chuckles as she adds, “It’s very important to clarify what name to address her with, especially when she has so many identities.”
The two of us share a mocking laugh.
Leticia observes us for a moment, seeming unperturbed by our insolence. “Whatever, bitches! You don’t faze me one bit!” She unscrews the can of Five Alive Pulpy Orange in her hand, making a chore of it. After taking a sip, she screws it back. “My name is Chioma Ogbenyeanu Leticia, and I always bounce back on my feet.”
“Oh, really? Are you married then, bouncer,” Mercy says, chuckling.
“Nah – but soon,” Leticia replies, a self satisfied smile stealing across her face. “I’m not made for these parts, you know? I was with your brother-in-law because I hoped he’d marry me and take me to the United States. It seems he’s not even going back, so good riddance to bad rubbish. Right now, I’m very well settled. If you listen well, you’ll hear it all happen.” She rises and tosses her head in the manner of one who has scored a victory. “So long, losers!” And she saunters off with a cackle.
“This girl na serious winch!” Mercy says, eyeing her as she walks away from us.
“I’m sha happy that Ifeanyi isn’t entangled with her anymore, that’s for sure,” I say, getting to my feet as our shawarma number is called.
Written by Adaku