No Longer At Ease
This chapter goes back in time to Clara and Obi's meeting. They first meet in London at a dance organized by the London branch of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons. Obi finds her incredibly attractive, but they do not interact much with each other. They have one dance together—Obi is fluttering and nervous, stepping all over Clara. Nevertheless, eighteen or so months later, they meet again because Clara is on the same ship home to Nigeria as Obi.
They meet at the docks but Clara is unreceptive. The trip goes smoothly, at first, and Obi, although he is not receiving Clara's attention seems to be happy about his first sea voyage. He looks out onto the water and enjoys his meals, wishing however, for Clara's attention. After a while, Obi becomes seasick and Clara, who has paid him no attention until then, appears at his cabin door with some tablets for his seasickness. He is appreciative and surprised and is quite happy, even though he is trying his best to employ a rehearsed calm. Clara speaks to him and Obi, and when Obi shows concern for her not having enough tablets for herself she explains that she is a nurse and has already given them out to two other passengers.
The next morning Obi thanks Clara again as he looks out onto the sea. As Clara and Obi exchange greetings Mr. Macmillan, another passenger, falls on the deck. Obi tells Macmillan not to worry, that he himself had almost fallen earlier, and they become friends after that.
Obi and Macmillan converse, have drinks, and discuss Clara and Obi's education, among other things. Macmillan asks him what his name means because he has heard that African names all mean something. Obi tells him that he cannot say for all African names, but Ibo names are often long sentences; however, Obi never tells him directly what his own name means.
The boat anchors, and two young men appear on a small boat and claim they will dive for money. The people on the boat throw the money into the sea, and the boys catch every single bit of it. Later, after dinner, they all (Clara, Mr. Macmillan, and Obi) go ashore together at Funchal in the Madeiras. While ashore they drink wine and see gardens and parks, Macmillan buys trinkets for home, and Clara and Macmillan are formally introduced.
Upon their return to the ship, Macmillan says he must write some letters. Clara says she will write letters too, but Obi tells her that she has time since letters to Nigeria cannot be posted until Freetown anyway. Clara and Obi are, therefore, left alone and have their first kiss. It is Obi who kisses Clara first, but she is, for some reason hesitant. She kisses him a second time but tells him he must leave because people are coming. She also seems to want to say something that she cannot.
Clara and Obi do not have a successful meeting. It seems that, from their beginning, Achebe is foreboding their unhappy ending. When they meet for the first time, Obi steps all over Clara while attempting to dance with her. Later, they meet on a boat where the waters are unstable, as is evidenced by Obi's seasickness. They meet on watery ground, both literally and figuratively. And, when Obi finally kisses Clara, Clara seems hesitant. She says "You don't—" as if she wanted to tell him something she is unable to. She seems hesitant and asks him to leave even though she is also attracted to him as is shown when she, herself, kisses him back a second time.
Still, however, there are similarities between the two that are important to mention at this early beginning. First of all, both of them have studied in England. Clara has studied nursing. They are both Ibo peoples who have studied abroad. They exist somewhere between the English language and culture and their own African and Nigerian traditions. It is important that Clara, when she offers Obi tablets for his illness, speaks to him in Ibo. Obi believes that this gesture offers a kind of connection. And though Clara has given others tablets and has assisted others, she has spoken to him in Ibo. It is apparent that Macmillan, for instance, also thinks Clara is quite beautiful. He too is attracted to her, but Clara chooses Obi perhaps because of their similar backgrounds—backgrounds that make it easier for them to know each other.
Language is important here. Right before Clara comes to Obi's cabin, Clara has been talking to an Officer from Ibaden who is talking to Clara about the difference between language and dialect. This directs us to watch out for language. And then, just following this, there is the episode in which Clara speaks to Obi in Ibo. It is as if both Clara and Obi's language of the heart is the language of home. It is interesting to note that Obi's name is Ibo spelled backward. Perhaps this is to say that Obi's world is turned upside down. While in England he is a Nigerian living in England, and while in Nigeria he is a young man belonging to a generation that is caught between cultures.
Another important section of this chapter is when Macmillan and Obi are talking over drinks. Macmillan is English and going to Nigeria so he must be involved somehow in the colonial government, unless of course he is merely a tourist. Nevertheless, he is not like the arrogant, imprudent "Mr. Green." He is curious, and he asks Obi many questions regarding what he has studied and what his name means. But he does not seem to look down on Obi. Obi does seem, however to be, understandably, defensive at one point. For instance when Macmillan asks him what he studied in London, Obi wants to know why he is asking this question. It is also in this section that Obi's age comes to the fore: at this point in the novel Obi is twenty-five and Clara is about twenty-three, according to Obi's guess.
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