This is the first round of stories in the literary challenge between Walter Uchenna Ude and James Becks Robert.
Each round will have its stories guided by a theme. And the theme for today’s stories is: The use of one’s status of advantage to steer a situation in his favour.
Both stories will not have the authors’ names attached to them, in order for the readers to be more objective in their voting. Readers may vote for their story of choice in the comments section. Readers are required to state their reasons for choosing the particular story, and critique either of them; in other words, point out any errors or conflicts in theme, or just basically whatever dissension they have over either story.
And finally, readers should read and enjoy. It’s not a battle to the death. The writers had fun writing. Every other thing should follow in the same vein.
I care, that is my problem, I care too much. I have been scorned more times than I can count, fleeced even when I am aware. My heart has been repeatedly plucked out leaving a grotesque hole behind but I still care with the fragment remaining. I have been lectured by friends and foes of the need to become meaner. I had it rammed down my throat that it makes people take advantage of me. Yet that hasn’t stopped me from caring when I shouldn’t. It sure feels like an addiction now. I often blab about not caring, I would be defiant that I am now indifferent. I would walk with a straight face for days enveloping my cupid smile, with a fierce resolve. Then the itch would return, convulsion follows and I would find myself mechanically crawl back to get a fix. I would get a syringe and stick it in like a junkie. I always felt the pain, but caring is my drug and I am shamelessly addicted to it. Everyone knows, it had ceased to be a secret. It wasn’t something worth hiding anymore and I specially care for Uncle Lanre, although that is not for everyone to know.
“Why are you still sitting there?” Aunty Peju asked.
“You are wasting your life,” she added.
“I don’t know when you will finally learn to become selfish,” she said. She was standing at the door, with a wrapper clutching her breast and a bra the other thing above her waist. I recognized the bra, I had bought her that bra while back; I went ‘bend down selecting’ and chanced on it. The design was too prime for its price. They must have mixed it up while opening the bale; I was scavenging through third class and it felt alien there. I had mean mode activated when I showed it to Mama Kabiru, she frowned and mouthed about it costing more, but I didn’t flinch. I showed her where I picked it from, the sign ‘Hundred Naira per piece’ was written boldly on a cardboard above the pile. It wasn’t my pot of beans they kept a Victoria Secret-esque piece with third class stuffs. I didn’t care when I gave her three hundred for three pieces, they had said I cared too much. I had mean mode activated.
Mean mode was still active when I stopped at Julieta’s boutique on my way home. I sprayed perfumed on the bras and skillfully wrapped them; Aunty Peju was stunned when I handed them to her. I found favor in her eyes even more. I didn’t tell her the price, I made her take a wild guess and said nothing when she did. Even with mean mode activated I still cared, I didn’t want to ruin her happiness.
“You should eat something,” Aunty Peju said, she was still at the door. I didn’t reply, she has repeated the same ritual for four days. Morning, noon and evening she would come, stand at the door, lean on its frame and ask me the same questions but I would stay mute. She would leave to return shortly. Tray in hand, chilled water and juice a can a piece, soup overcrowded with meat and a supporting cast of eba. Lay it carefully on my bedside table and remove the tray she had left behind on her previous visit. The plates always remain neatly covered, on the exact spot she had left them. And no matter how detailed you look you cannot trace a stain on the tray just as you cannot trace a morsel of eba nor a strand of soup on either plates. Aunty Peju never ask how the food gets transfigured, her can of slimy worms needed to be kept covered. She would silently drop the new tray then go with the old, soja go soja come barrack remains.
Once Aunty Peju leaves, I would switch gear. I always sense an omniscient hand nudge me and my addiction would resurface like the Pentecostal fire, I care too much for the food to let it get cold. I would uncover both plate just to take a peek, but when I would return their covers not one soldier would remain standing. Neither the juice nor the water would be spared. One doesn’t pour libations with just words; a pint of piss would do as long as the gods’ get their throats wet. Besides I care; her effort should not go wasted.
Yemi always thinks she knows better. She has this idea in her head she can outsmart anyone and to her credit she does. She has a way of scheming things in her favor and would make everyone believe the exact opposite of what she actually means. But not me, I would always follow her script. Whenever she decides to do an ‘Amaechi’ I was always ready to bring out the ‘Mama Peace’ in me. It required little effort. I had become an expert at it; it was this inert talent that enabled me to sway my way into Honorable Lanre’s heart.
Tongues wagged, they are wagging still. They say I washed things into his food, that I have him wrapped between my fingers because I have his head stuck between my thighs. They say I make decisions for him, that I have replaced his brain with potato. Some say when I do my wifely duties, I always insist on being on top, I wonder how they learnt that, Lord knows that would not be fun. But like kermit the frog that’s none of my business, the business of keeping everything in place is not a child’s play. The things I have given up on, the rage I swallow especially when Yemi threatens to let my husband know my secrets. These things demand a greater ounce of courage to accept. They think it is easy getting off the street. I moved from grace to grass with such ease that would make a waterfall envious. But these world people, instead of joining me to shout Hallelujah, they sneer, gossip and throw endless jibes at me. But who cares? I am still where I am. Patience nor sabi speak English she still be first lady. Yinmu for them jor.
Peju! How people change or rather how they make people presume they have changed. I cognized all along but she doesn’t know I know. Peju deserves an Oscar; AMA would be an insult to her precocious skill. She is a deceptive enigma. She would take to Hollywood like Ekiti people and rice. The way she pretentiously screams my name when we do our nocturnal tussle, how she feigns her face as it gets intense, I sometimes wonder if she was the politician. But I guess birds of a feather don’t just flock together, ‘na the same Mama born dem’ so they say.
Moreover she doesn’t know I know that those sumptuous hot ogbono soup with kpomo competing with ugu for space grinning evilly on death cold pot were imported from Madam Lovito’s restaurant. Peju didn’t know I know that those Isiewu and Nkwobi she prepared just for me only knew her fingers on their way to her stomach. She believes me when I tell her, that her pounded yam was as smooth as her skin when I gulp them with the ogbono. She would always plant a soft kiss on my lips; she didn’t know I know that the mortar and pestle in the kitchen have never crossed each other’s path in anger. Often she would smile to show the only real thing about her; the gap between her teeth when I tell her that her BB is the most fascinating thing about her. She should realize I meant Mouka foam special, stuff full with feathers like a pillow. Peju didn’t know I know, that the voluptuous hills of her chest are like bicycle tires, the pump always supplies air to make it firmer. She still thinks I can’t smell the coffee that I am as dumb as I choose to look. I play the game with her; she thinks she is a master at it. But I merely use her to flex my muscle, I have to be match fit all year round and she is a perfect dummy to hone my skills. It is the same game I play in the office and when the Local Government Council meets. The players might be different but the rules are the same. Besides I am beating her at her own game with the odds stacked in my favor. I feel like George R. R. Martins and can toy with anybody in my realm. But Yemi still tastes better than she does, why should I then disrupt the existing equilibrium?
“OH MY GOD…!” Esther screamed. “CHIMA, LOOK AT WHAT YOU HAVE DONE TO MEEEEE!”
The face of the man who hovered beside her was stricken with anxiety. “Oh, baby, please don’t say that–”
“DON’T YOU DARE TELL ME WHAT TO SAY…!” Esther cut him off with a shriek.
“Try and relax –”
“AND DON’T YOU DARE TELL ME TO RELAX!” she shrilled again, and then threw her head sharply backward before letting out a manic scream that tore through the tense atmosphere in the room. Her forehead and temples were dewed with perspiration, and her fingers gripped the sides of the bed with such strength that the veins on her hands stood out.
“Baby, please…” Chima cajoled in a breathless voice as he reached out to touch her arm.
“GET AWAY FROM ME!” came her outburst, which made the man flinch. She waved her head about, lank tendrils of her sweat-drenched hair flipping about her face, before she stabbed her furious gaze at the team bustling about before her. “AND GET THAT THING OUT OF ME!”
“Madam, just take it easy…” a flustered nurse began.
“Don’t tell me that, don’t tell me that…” Esther’s voice lost its volume and she flopped back on the bed, clearly spent from the recent bout of labour.
“I see the head, Esther,” the midwife coaxed the exhausted woman. “It’s almost over now. Just one more push.”
Esther clenched her teeth and strained with all her might, her face flushed and sweating, her hair wet from hours of the effort. A huge gasp broke from her when she could push no more, and she dropped back on the bed again, falling into the supporting arms of her husband.
“Esther, you have to try…” the midwife cajoled.
“I can’t…I just can’t…” she whimpered. “God, please, why me…I can’t do this…”
“Babe, don’t talk like that,” Chima said soothingly, running his palm gently over her forehead, wiping sweat and smoothening her hair back. “You can do this. You’re strong. You can –”
“I can’t… Please, don’t make me do this again… Please, please…” Her eyes, which had simmered with rage moments ago, had now turned glassy with unshed tears, and the words she spoke were tremulous with the enervation she was starting to feel. “Oh God, please take this away from me… I just can’t…”
“Esther, just one more push,” the midwife said firmly but kindly. “The baby is crowning. You’re almost there.”
And just that fast, the need to push rushed in on Esther yet again. Chima went to work as well, supporting her back and shoulders and whispering words of encouragement as she screamed and strained so hard the sinews on her neck stood out prominently.
And then it was over. She gave one final push, one which produced a wriggling, wet baby. A piteous wail cut through the air, loud, halting and plaintive, the sound Esther realized would haunt her for a very long time to come as she dropped back on the bed, too tired to see the miracle she and her husband had made happen.
A nurse, accompanied by Chima, brought that miracle to her several minutes later, when she was out of the delivery ward, and in the private room she’d been admitted to when she first started experiencing labour pangs. It was a boy. And he was making gurgling sounds as the nurse maneuvered him into his mother’s arms.
“He’s precious, isn’t he?” the nurse said wistfully.
“Yes, he is,” Chima said as he hurried to the other side of the bed, to join his wife in gazing at their child.
Esther stared at the bundle in her arms, drinking in the exquisite little features, the tiny nose, the soft mouth, the lashes that cast shadows on the round cheeks, the wisps of dark hair that was a curly mop on his head. He gurgled again, making some jerky motions with his face and hands, before letting out soft whimpers.
“Uh-oh, I think someone’s hungry,” the nurse said with a small laugh.
Chima chuckled as Esther wedged her right breast from the flimsy gown she was wearing. She brushed her nipple at the corner of the baby’s mouth to stimulate his rooting reflex. He turned his head toward the touch. After some fumbling, he latched onto her and began to suckle, his cheeks moving rhythmically.
“Be sure not to block his nose,” the nurse cautioned.
Using her finger, Esther pressed her breast away from the baby’s tiny nose to prevent interference with his breathing. The nurse nodded approvingly, before walking out of the room.
“He’s adorable, isn’t he?” Chima said gushingly beside Esther.
“Yes, he is,” the new mother said, before looking up to face her husband.
“So what name are we going to give him from those two we picked out two weeks ago?” Chima queried, as he stared lovingly at her.
“In a minute, we will get to that,” Esther said brusquely. Then she paused, staring pointedly at him before saying heavily, “Sixteen hours of labour, Chima. Sixteen.”
Chima smiled self-consciously. “Okay, but baby, you were so strong –”
Esther cut him off as she barreled on, “The total number of times you spent giving me the pleasure that resulted in me having to go through sixteen hours of labour does not even come close to sixteen hours.” The stress she kept dropping on the word ‘sixteen’ was heavy.
“Ouch.” Chima chuckled.
“Sixteen hours of labour – painful labour… Who does that?” Esther said incredulously, shuddering slightly as the memory of what happened in the labour room surged through her mind.
“Baby, I’m sorry you had to go through that,” Chima wheedled, as he lifted her hand to her face. “I’ll make it all up to you, I promise.”
“Oh you will,” she replied, widening her eyes fractionally to emphasize her determination to enforce the fulfillment of his promise. “You will.” She thought about the hell that her friends told her came after childbirth – the sleepless nights, the round-the-clock wailing demand of the baby, the towering laundry of dirty diapers, the feedings the baby would devilishly seem to want whenever she would be ready to drop.
All that after sixteen hours of labour.
“You will make it up to me,” she said again, emphatically. “You will.”
And when her husband nodded his acquiescence and hugged her to assure her that he wouldn’t break his word, he had no idea just what he was giving her his assurance for. His friends hadn’t known to give him the knowledge that her friends had given her.