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The motor park was a bustling hub of activity, even at six in the morning. I was the first passenger to Enugu to arrive. After collecting my ticket, the driver graciously opened the bus and I sat directly behind the driver’s seat. I half-listened as Mother reeled out the dangers of sitting in that particular place, worried about the journey, and warned me repeatedly to keep an eye on my luggage. I nodded at intervals, trying to refrain myself from getting annoyed. She cared, so she worried.
The early morning sun crept over the clustered rooftops, its rays stretching forward like the young yam tendrils in Big Mama’s farm in the village. Big Mama is my father’s mother. As the sun rose, touts, travelers, food vendors and business owners milled about, bringing the place to life. More passengers joined me in the bus. Tired of waiting, Mother said she was returning home. I smiled and bid her goodbye, waiting for the customary last admonition. She didn’t disappoint. This time, I was to focus more on passing my final year exams and less on that boy. Even if he sounded like a good boy. I giggled at Chiemena being called a boy.
“Mummy, go o. Mmekup. I’ve heard you,” I said, hoping to hasten her departure.
“Ok. Kaa di o,” she said. “Go well.”
Two hours went by and we were still waiting for the bus to fill up. I counted the spaces left; three to go and we would be on our way. My stomach rumbled, a situation occasioned by the wonderful aromas of firewood-cooked delicacies from the surrounding bukas. I was tempted to go and eat, but I checked myself. My stomach has never been travel-friendly; I get the worst upsets whenever I eat before embarking on a journey. I had a couple of embarrassing incidents in the past; one ended badly, with me generously soiling my underpants. I would rather a day of hunger than ever have a repeat of such an experience.
Every once in a while, I looked behind to make sure that the jute bag that contained all my foodstuff and clothes was still sitting safe in the open boot. The two men in the front seats got down and went towards what seemed to be the busiest food kiosk; a male youth corper at the back shouted out in joy at seeing one of his friends. From the ensuing conversation, the latter had been posted to Owerri. The plump, pleasant-faced woman seated behind me, appeared to have come with shopping in mind; she was buying things from every vendor who ventured close to her window.
“Is anyone sitting here?” someone asked in a pleasant, husky voice.
“You sure say dis ya perfume no be Aba-made? Dis one wey dey smell like Susurubia of Arabia,” Merchant Madam said to a vendor.
I glanced at the door and saw the inquiring eyes of a breathtakingly beautiful girl. I tell you; she was stunning. I am a girl, but that didn’t stop me from staring. Fair-skinned, almost an albino, brown eyes like the caramel toffee that Uncle Sunny, Dad’s cousin, used to bring for us whenever he returned from the U.S.; long, lustrous hair I was certain was hers, flawless makeup, and a pink-glossed bud of a mouth that had me self-consciously puckering mine. Her dress, a wispy confection in peach-coloured chiffon, perfectly accentuated that skin tone.
“Is it taken?”
“Is what?” I stuttered. Then I understood her question and blushed. “No,” I replied, shaking my head vigorously, looking at the empty seat and then back up at her.
“Okay. Thanks,” she said, bestowing me with a winsome, white-toothed smile.
I gaped as she settled herself on the seat beside the door. I gaped as she placed her bag on the raised platform in front of her. I was still gaping when she turned to me.
“Hi, I’m Ekaete.”
“Idara. For real, Ekaete?” I blurted. Too late, but I still wished I could kick myself.
To my surprise, she started laughing. Her laugh – I don’t know a less clichéd way to describe it – was musical. Like a happy song, composed for the celebration of a good harvest. I frowned a little. Why can’t I laugh like that? I thought, making a mental note to practice it as soon as I was alone.
“Yes, for real.”
“You must have been teased a lot.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” she said, smiling ruefully. “I wish it were only the teasing; that I don’t mind so much. I’m not being prideful, but that name and my face are not a good combination. I’ve gotten some pretty disconcerting and often inappropriate propositions.”
“That’s not surprising,” I said. “I’ve had my share too. Once, someone asked me how come I was in school when ordinarily, I should be a maid.”
“That isn’t nearly as bad as mine,” she chortled. “A classmate once told me I was only in school because I am too beautiful to be a maid. No one would want to hire a potential husband-snatcher like me.” She chuckled at the memory, her shoulders shaking.
“How can you laugh about it?” I asked. “It’s tribalistic and derogatory.”
“Eyeneka mmi, kpong mkpo ado,” she said. “Leave it be, my sister. Life is too short to be angry over some ignorant people’s statements. I know who and what I am and as long as I know that, I’m fine. You know, I used to fight it, shortly after I moved to Enugu. But I soon learned that many of them don’t reason that way and those who do, just want to get a rise out of me. I stopped giving them the satisfaction.”
“I guess so,” I said, unconvinced.
Cocooned in the safety of people with whom I shared a common language, belief system and ideals, my closest encounter to tribalism had been with Ifeoma, the only Igbo girl in my Primary Four class. Even then, I didn’t know it for what it was. Only later, did I know that it was wrong for the teachers to refer to her as that Igbo girl, the one whose father always paid her fees late. It didn’t matter that there were a few other pupils whose parents defaulted in the payment of their school fees. What mattered was that she was Igbo. If you’re not careful, those people will trick you and take all your money, they’d often said. Even to Ifeoma’s hearing.
Within weeks of arriving in Enugu, all that changed. One mention of my name and the fact that I was from Akwa-Ibom state sent some people into fits of mischief. One time, I had this neighbour who was in the habit of sending me on errands. At the beginning, I thought she just needed my help too often. Then one day, like an epiphany, it dawned on me. So the next time she asked me to take a twenty-litre gallon to the tap outside and fetch some water for her, I refused.
“Nnedi, what are you doing?” I’d asked, my attention on the black court shoes I was polishing.
“What do you mean, ‘what am I doing’?”
“What are you doing that you can’t fetch your own water?”
“What kind of stupid question is that?” she’d spat, eyeing me up and down.
“Madam, go and fetch your own water. In fact, from now on, I’m no longer running ay errands for you.”
That was when, in a voice filled with more venom than I’d ever heard in my life, she’d told me that she wondered what I was doing in school, when girls from my place are supposed to be maids. Other experiences like that had followed.
“Touched a nerve, eh?” Ekaete’s question pulled me back to the present.
“Yeah,” I replied. “An old one that interestingly still smarts.”
“Forgerrit,” she quipped.
“Driver, dis bus neva full?” the woman behind me asked, sticking her head outside the window to address the driver who was standing at the back of the bus. “Abeg make una do make we go. Since sevun o’clock wey I come hia, now ten o’clock don nack. I wan go carry my pikin for bording skool by tree o’clock.”
“Madam relax, we go soon comot,” the driver assured her. “Make dis Oga wey just come write buy im ticket.”
Inside the bus, one of the men in front passed the manifest to Ekaete; she wrote down her name, address and phone number and passed it to me. Out of habit, I wrote a phony number under the heading for next-of-kin and then crossed it off. I’d started doing that in my first year, when a fellow traveler had told me that those numbers were used to trace the families of some passengers and rob them. I was a JJC at travelling on my own and believed every word. These days, I have to consciously write down the correct number.
“Excuse me, please shift inside,” a man by the door said to my new friend.
I passed on the manifest.
“Why? This is my seat,” Ekaete said, shifting aside so her knees faced the door and the man could get inside.
I knew the moment the man got a good look at her face; he wore the same gobsmacked face I must’ve had on too.
“Sir, please enter,” heaved a long-suffering sigh.
The man stammered, cleared his throat and shook his head this way and that. It was comical, seeing this short, slightly pot-bellied fellow act like an awestruck teenager.
“Please shift inside. I want to seat by the door,” he said.
“But I came here first and I like to sit by the door. Sorry, but I can’t go inside.”
“Eh? See this girl o. Don’t you have any respect?” he exclaimed. “You want to struggle over a seat with a man. A man that’s older than you for that matter.”
“Oho. I should abandon a seat I paid for and came in time to choose because you’re a man? Sir, you’re not serious. If you’d wanted to sit by the door, you should’ve come earlier,” Ekaete said. Even as she sneered in disdain, she was still beautiful.
The man nodded angrily and went back in, to the booking office. It wasn’t long before he returned with the driver and the touts that were loading our luggage on the bus.
“Fine auntie, abeg shift inside make dis Oga siddon for dis place,” the driver pleaded, grinning sheepishly at Ekaete.
“Driver, I would have shifted if he’d asked nicely. But since he’s come to report me to you like I’m a child, I’m not moving an inch. If he’s not going to sit in the middle, he should wait for the next bus,” she declared.
Her statement sparked off a fresh round of arguments; the man blustered, the girl scoffed. The driver and touts pleaded, the other passengers were divided. Some asked her to respect the man and give up her seat, others asked her not to go anywhere. Someone, a very silly person, suggested that I move to the middle seat, so the man could sit by the window and not between two women. I vehemently shook my head. After several minutes had passed, the driver turned on the man and ordered him to either get in or he’d refund his money and put another passenger on the bus.
“How can you ask a man like me to sit between two women?”
“If you don’t want to sit, then come and take ya money, make I put anoda person and gerrout of here,” the driver said.
Defeated, he relented and with plenty mutterings and hisses, settled his bulk between the two of us. Peace restored, the driver started the vehicle and we sped off.
“Sir, you’re very lucky o. Only you, married to two beautiful women,” someone cheekily said from the back. It was the youth corper. Everyone laughed, except the man in the middle. He glowered.
A man in the fourth row, in the deep, echoing voice that’s customary in preachers, prayed for the safety of the journey. After that, time passed slowly. Some of the passengers slept off. Intermittently, Ekaete and I discussed but in time, she was also lulled to sleep by the rhythmic cadence of the moving bus. Not able to do the same, I let my mind wander back home. Uppermost on my mind, was the last conversation I had with my friends, Lucy and Dati, on our second visit to the Udosen mansion.
One of the hardest things to do is to admit the truth about ourselves, to ourselves. When one has gotten used to sitting on the high horse, coming off such a lofty position and accepting one’s humanity is a strange and bitter pill to swallow. Very bitter, I tell you.
Sitting here in a lotus position, arms wrapped around a pillow, in Lucy’s room, I was finally being honest to myself. Ironic that I thought Lucy was the annoying, stuck-up, and rigid do-gooder, when all along, it’d been me.
I stared down at my hands, listening to the silence my words had shocked my friend into.
“You slept with Osahon?” Lucy finally whispered, her eyes bugging out. “As in, you had actual sex with Osahon?”
“Lower your damn voice!” I ground out.
“Wow. She’s cussing,” she said, shaking her head in wonder.
“I’m not cussing! I just…I ju…” I felt the tears pooling in my eyes. “I’m just ashamed to say this out loud again. I’ve buried it for half a decade. It hurt. He hurt me, and I’ve worked hard not to remember.” My shoulders shook with the force of my sobs.
“Hey, hey, don’t beat up yourself. Everyone makes mistakes,” Dati said, wrapping her arms around me.
“And you didn’t tell me? This is all your fault. I wouldn’t have made this mistake if you’d only told me,” Lucy stated in a fierce whisper.
Hold up! Say what?
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Dati said, giving me a meaningful glance. “Lucy, you’re where you are because you made a decision not to have safe sex. Idara’s warning would’ve made little difference.”
“Maybe it would have,” she moaned, tears slipping down her cheeks. “I don’t want this baby.”
“Would you rather a miscarriage?” I asked, sombre.
“No, she wouldn’t –” Dati began.
“Yes, I would,” Lucy declared, glaring at her. “Anything to take away this…this…shame. He’s already got a bad reputation. I’m the one who’s getting all the blame.”
“I thought so too…back then. Now, I’m not so sure,” I murmured.
“You thought what, when?” Dati asked, perplexed.
“That a miscarriage was the best thing that could’ve happened.”
“Could have?” Dati asked.
“Yes,” I said, sighing. “I’d have had a cute son or daughter today.” I smiled wanly.
Tick. Tock. Tick.
I tell you, if their eyes had widened any further, they’d have fallen out. In a weird way, I was amused at their flabbergasted expressions. I almost grinned. Almost.
“Who’s going first?” I asked, almost arrogant in the relief I was feeling. There, at last, my secret is out.
“Is this a joke?” Lucy went first.
“Am I laughing?”
“You had a miscarriage? You never told me that one. Whose baby was it?” Dati asked.
“What do you mean ‘whose baby was it’? How many men have I slept with?”
She gave this annoying, noncommittal shrug that had me wishing I’d zipped my lips.
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean it like that. But you, you kept this…this huge secret from us for five years! What do you want me to think? Us. What do you expect us to think?” Dati asked, pointing at Lucy and herself and getting a nod of support from that quarter.
This is what happens when you decide to spill your guts about something you should have otherwise taken to your grave.
“I expect you to believe me and not make me feel worse than I already do.”
“Your worse can’t possibly match mine. I’m pregnant for the man who slept with my friend and then dumped her immediately it was done, and then slept with me years later – several times, I might add – h and dropped me the moment I became pregnant and now is back to tell me he’ll support his son, because it makes him look cool among his friends, even though I want nothing to do with him. How’s that for worse?” Lucy asked, breathlessly.
For the second time since the start of the visit, there was silence. We sat there, lost in our thoughts. On my part, I imagined how little they must think of me now. Should I have told them?
“Who else knew about it?” Dati asked.
“Udeme and my father.”
“WHAT?” they both screamed in chorus. Again.
“Will you lower your voices? Ha! I couldn’t tell Mum; she would’ve skinned me alive. I told Udeme first, and then he told Dad. While they were thinking of how best to let her know, it…it…went away.”
“How did you feel?” Lucy asked.
“Happy. Indifferent, sometimes. Nostalgic, once in a while.”
“Some people have got all the luck,” she muttered.
“Well,” Dati said, breaking the quiet as she slapped her palms on her thighs. “I think that’s enough revelation for today. We should get going.”
“Go where? I was enjoying your conversation,” someone said, startling us.
Our heads whipped around in unison.
There, leaning on the door frame, hands in his pockets, in all his evil glory, was Osahon.
Written by Eketi Ette