The Memory Question
by Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam
Two weeks after we won the tournament, I attended the funeral of a woman I didn’t know.
I had no memories of her, but Papa said it was the right thing to do—to attend the funeral of my birth mother. It didn’t matter that she had never been married. And so, I attended, taking in every detail: the funeral mass, the lowering of the coffin, the wailings.
After the funeral, I drove down to the local bar, my mind plagued by the thoughts of death and life after death. I ordered a beer when the lady walked up to me and introduced herself.
“No interviews today, please,” I said, lifting the beer to my lips.
“Please, Daniel,” she said, clearing her throat. “I’ve been trying to reach you for years. “I should have gotten the first interview, but the other guys beat me to it.”
She slouched into the chair opposite me and grinned. Her dentition was perfect. White and finely-chiselled. Pulling a pen from her spanking suit, she arched her neatly-carved brows. She was young probably in her mid-twenties, but she conducted herself like a maestro. I liked her thin singsong voice, her shoulder-length braids.
I bought her a bottle of Smirnoff ice. She was easy to talk to. And we talked a lot. About soccer. About my parents—my foster parents, she called them. Then, she got around to it. But this time, she leaned forward. They always came around to asking it. The one they seem most interested in. The ‘survivor’ question.
“How did you survive the trauma of having been abandoned?”
“There was no trauma. I had—and still have—no memories of my birth parents.”
“But you were four years old when your mother left you for dead during the market riot?”
I downed my glass of beer and sighed. My heart started to beat faster, the way it would when a fast mid-fielder was dribbling the football past me.
“My parents,” I said. I shut my eyes, exhaled and leaned in like she had done. “I have no memories of them. I’ve always said that. Did you supposed that had changed?”
She smiled and pressed the red button atop the recorder.
“Come on, ”she said. “Off the record. When you first met her at the hospital, you must have recognised her, or remembered something.”
I shook my head.
“Okay. What were your earliest memories?”
“Tripping and falling in the middle of the street and getting run over by a bicycle.” I exhaled and watched her, nodding, still listening. “And joggling a ball in our yard while some women cried over a dead woman, and people rubbing my head and saying, ‘sorry.’ Some people gave me money which my peers snatched from me after a good beating.” I pulled down the side of my shirt, showed her the arrow shaped scar on my shoulder. “See?”
She nodded and smiled. “What else do you remember?”
“A funeral and a wedding. An older boy took me.”
“An older brother?”
I shrugged. “Perhaps.”
I opened the next green beer bottle and drank from it. Her bottle of Smirnoff ice sat half full beside her plate of fish pepper soup.
“You haven’t touched your food,” I said, eager to dodge the memory question. But she waved the question away, with manicured nails. And I could tell that she was used to waving questions away, used to dodging them in fact.
“You started playing early, then?” She fiddled with the button on the recorder.
“I didn’t say that. I said I have memories of doing those things. Those memories could be false. Unreliable.”
“Do you remember the riots?”
“Where your step-mother says they found you?”
“That’s strange. You think it was so traumatic that your mind has tried to erase it. To protect you from the scars.”
“I don’t know,” I said. I finished the rest of my beer. I craned my neck, wriggled my fingers at one of the servers: a tall girl with gleaming dark-brown skin and large eyes that seemed out of place on her small face. I thought I’d seen her before at one of the government parties we were given after we won the FA cup. But perhaps my memories lie.
“Sir,” she said. “What may I get you?”
“Two more bottles of Star Lager Beer,” I turned to Kamsi. “You?”
She shook her head. Her braids swayed. The beads she’d pinned to her hair clack-clacked in the air.
The server left.
Kamsi stood up and picked up her bag. “Perhaps, we should continue tomorrow?”
I shook my head.
She flipped open her diary, traced the pages with her long fingers. “The day after tomorrow, then?”
“No. Aren’t we done yet? Why can’t we conclude the interview here and now?”
Her eyes darted to the bottles on the table, and then she smiled. She was too polite, I thought. Too professional. It wasn’t her place to tell me I had a drinking problem. I knew it.
“The day after tomorrow will be perfect.” Her voice was firm, solid and convincing. I panicked.
“Will you discuss my drinking problem in the interview?”
She smacked her lips. “You’ll find out when it’s been published.”
* * *
But that wasn’t the end.
Kamsi phoned two weeks after the interview had been published.
“I met your foster father at his work place.”
“In the middle of the road?”
“Yes. Controlling traffic in his very unique way.” She sighed.
“I wish he would quit and just live on the money I send him.”
“I asked him that, you know? And he said, he can’t remember ever being so happy. He loves giving commands while dancing. It’s not about the money. Can’t you see?”
I pulled off my canvas shoes.
“He can’t remember much, can he? Nowadays, he chooses what to remember and what to forget.”
“But he remembers the exact spot where he found you crying, ball in hand.”
I shut my eyes, tried to remember. Only a vague picture of me standing in a dark field, just as my foster parents had explained in detail. The market place turned upside down, food and wares lying around in a heap and me, pushing through the throngs of people, crying.
“Do you remember?” She asked.
“Why is it important to remember?”
“Because it’s the day your destiny began to take shape.”
“Is this an extension of the former interview?”
There was a long pause.
I had to end this conversation once and for all. All that probing around was beginning to give me a headache, a heartache. Kamsi seemed to read my mind because she spoke first.
“Drowning your memories in alcohol isn’t helpful. What you need is to understand your personal history and come to terms with it.”
I shut my eyes. She didn’t have to be so blunt, didn’t have to hit me so hard, below the belt.
“That’s all for now. I won’t be bothering you again,” she said. There was a long pause. “Good bye.”
I didn’t know her, couldn’t tell if she was the type to break or keep her word. So I went about my business, doing what I knew how to do best—playing football.
But I was pleasantly surprised to see that she wouldn’t keep her word. She phoned shortly afterwards, and that was how my journey began.
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Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam’s first novel, Finding Love Again, was published by Ankara Press. Her second novel was longlisted for the Saraba Manuscript Prize and has published short stories in several newspapers and literary journals including MTLS, Long Story Short, Fiction 365, Saraba, and Tribes Write. Awards and prizes include the 2014 ACT award semi-finalist, Cecilia Unaegbu Flash Fiction contest and farafinablog’s Voice of America flash fiction contest. She has a B.TECH in Computer Science and blogs at creativewritingnews.net.