Continued from last week
By Olusola Akinwale
A month later, Oloye Bab returned to Ibadan. He lodged at the Vine Hotel, where he received a few friends and relatives. He could not yet settle in his house, which had stood empty for so long that the smell of mold swept over him the moment he stepped inside. The last time he’d been in the living room, the dust mites had prompted a bout of sneezing. In the bathroom, mildew spotted the tiles and discolored the porcelain. It was all quite unlike the air in his living room in Quebec, where he breathed in the scent of fresh roses. Oloye Bab sighed. The house in Ibadan needed a facelift. It also needed a generator because the power supply in the city was erratic. He would stay at the hotel until his house was ready. He had more than enough money from his job in Quebec to pay all the bills. All he needed to do was go to the Sabo quarter, the city’s currency exchange black market, and change his dollars to naira notes.
Every night he called his wife and children to tell them how he was faring. He told them the conditions in Nigeria weren’t as bad as they had been led to believe, hoping to convince his wife to move home. His oldest daughter Folake was still as averse to her father living in Nigeria as she had been when he told her he was leaving Canada. Married to a Canadian, she told her father it would be horrendous to leave the comfort of Edmonton for Nigeria. His other daughter Fadeke didn’t care about his experiences in the country. Folahan would say, “Nigeria may not be for me, but as long as you’re fine over there, Dad, you have my support. Take care of yourself.”
Folahan had accompanied his father to Nigeria for Ade’s burial, and when they’d returned to Canada, he admitted he would struggle to adjust to life in Africa if they were to live there. Everyone in the family spoke with a Canadian accent except Oloye Bab, though his wife switched to her native accent when talking with him. Oloye Bab sometimes complained about their conversion to Canadianism, arguing they all spoke in a manner alien to their roots.
The repair work was finished in three weeks, and Oloye Bab moved into his house, now painted a pristine white. The fence had been raised and capped off with electrified barbed wire. If there was a riot against the junta and its allies, it would be difficult for the protesters to break in. The access road, however, was heavily eroded. It rained the day after Oloye Bab moved in, and vehicles driving by bumped across potholes, splashing great gouts of muddy water here and there.
After five days of living in the house, Oloye Bab decided it was finally time to meet with Colonel Etomo. He strode into the waiting room of the governor’s office, head held high, while hitching the fold of his blue Guinea agbada. An official told him he would have to wait because Colonel Etomo and his commissioners were having a meeting of the executive council.
He walked across the ornate green Persian rug to sit on a white leather chair. As he adjusted the floppy cap perched on his head, his gaze was drawn to two photos on the wall in front of him. One was of General Abacha wearing dark glasses and sporting a faint smile that belied his wolfish tendencies. Beside it was a photo of Colonel Etomo, also wearing glasses, though not as dark as his boss’s. His face was inscrutable. When did he start wearing glasses? The colonel’s green uniform bore two pips on the shoulder, and the inscription on the plastic badge on his chest read, “A. G. Etomo.”
Time dragged on, and Oloye Bab perused the day’s papers, first the Nigerian Tribune and then The Punch. He watched impatiently as civil servants went up and down the stairs. After an hour, he’d had enough waiting. He stepped outside, passed the soldiers toting guns, and went to his car. There, he found his driver snoring with his head resting on his arms, which were folded over the steering wheel. He decided not to wake him and moved on.
The midday sun shone brightly, casting a short stubby shadow in front of him. People moved briskly heading in all directions. A man with cheeks furrowed like rain-washed crags hurried past in a rumpled oversized suit. Is his salary enough to pay his bills? In the day’s papers, Oloye Bab had read the workers were threatening to go on another strike because of unpaid salaries.
As he passed a shop with a Coca-Cola signboard on the wall, he saw a young woman walking toward the government offices. She was slender and wore a red blouse with white polka dots over a black cotton skirt. She waved at a man in a car with whom she talked briefly before continuing toward the office.
The way she carried herself was elegant. The dark mass of her braids bounced with each step. Oloye Bab felt a stirring in his loins, and in the spur of the moment, he began following her. She crossed to the other side of the road, heading toward the governor’s office. Four cars passed in quick succession, keeping him from crossing and he lost track of her.
When Oloye Bab sauntered back into the governor’s office waiting room, he found the woman again. An older woman wearing a white hijab addressed her as “Sisi Moyo” and asked how she had spent her recent leave.
“I went to Akure to spend some time with my mother,” Moyo replied.
Oloye Bab ogled her unabashedly until their eyes met. Her broad forehead tapered to a pointed chin, and her eyelids were shaded in purple. Wouldn’t she make a beautiful companion in Yewande’s absence? She inclined her head at him before leaving the room.
After waiting for an hour more, Oloye Bab was told His Excellency would not be seeing visitors because he had to hurry to a council headquarters to launch new electrical transformers. Oloye Bab would have to book another appointment.
“After such an endless wait? Nothing? Did you tell him that Oloye Babatunde Agbeja was waiting?”
One week after his first attempt, Oloye Bab finally managed to meet with Colonel Etomo.
“Oloye, this state belongs to us all,” said Etomo. “If you had been around when I assumed office, I’d have appointed you as one of the commissioners.” They sat at a picnic table on the pool patio of the Government House, feasting on a supper of barbecued meat and a bottle of Moët under a moonlit sky. Oloye Bab wore a brocade buba and sokoto. Etomo wore a golf shirt and chinos. Behind them were two more rattan chairs. Two military officers stood a few meters away from them, watching over the colonel.
Etomo swirled the champagne around in his glass and the melting ice cubes clinked softly in the reddish-pink liquid. “I could create a new ministry for you if you so desire.” He downed his drink and turned his eyes to the pool as if he were expecting a new ministry to surface from it. The moon trembled on the water. “What about a ministry for women’s affairs? No, no. I think we already have that.”
Oloye Bab filled his mouth with spicy, succulent meat. These military men were a mismatch for government. How else could one explain a governor suggesting that a man be commissioner for a ministry whose affairs chiefly involved women?
“Colonel, it would be much more logical for a woman to head such a ministry.”
“You’re right. A woman is in fact heading it. Who is she now? What did she say her name was? I forget.” He gazed into the water again. “How about the Ministry of Urban Development?”
Oloye Bab set down his glass. “Colonel, I could work with you without being appointed a commissioner.”
“Okay, chief, tell me what you want.”
“Let me be your government’s main contractor. I’m your man. Ade was your bosom friend.”
Etomo stroked the corner of his lower lip thoughtfully. “I can’t forget your support when we were both in the military school.”
“As my younger brothers, I couldn’t have done less for you,” said Oloye Bab. “What I was after was for you to succeed in your military career, and here you are today.”
“You’ll have your wish.”
“I’m grateful, but one more thing.” Oloye Bab lowered his voice a notch. “Isn’t your position an opportunity to invest in something worthwhile and build a legacy you could leave for your children?”
“I don’t need to be told that.”
“I could front you and execute major contracts on your behalf.”
“Not a bad idea.”
Oloye Bab saluted him.
Near the railing on the upstairs gallery at the Dallas Hotel, Oloye Bab sat at a table with champagne. The Secretary to the State Government, or the “SSG,” and the Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development sat with him.
Oloye Bab peered down at the night’s entertainment, a highlife band comprised of an afro-haired male bandleader and his female backup singers. A spotlight shone on a banner draped on the wall of the stage that read ‘D. P. ALAWAYE AND HIS INTERNATIONAL MERRY MAKERS’. The band impressed Oloye Bab with its performance. He bobbed his head to the synchronization of the saxophone and guitar, but his interest in the music wavered as soon as beautiful Moyo and her friend Sidikat arrived. He left the two government officials to attend briefly to the ladies and ordered them red wine.
When he returned, the commissioner said, “Oloye, please share the housing contract with us.” The State Government was about to award a contract worth 450 million naira for the construction of some housing units in Ajoda, a satellite town to Ibadan. The commissioner knew that the cost had not only been inflated, but also that a company fronted by Oloye Bab would win the contract.
“You had your time when we awarded the contract for the rural water scheme.” The commissioner’s bony face reminded Oloye Bab of the seven lean cows that devoured the seven fat cows in Pharaoh’s dream. “How many rural communities are now free from water- borne disease?”
The commissioner looked pained. “Our mobilization fee was reduced.”
Oloye Bab gave him an “and-so-what?” stare.
The SSG wiped his dewy moustache. “Please, don’t overlook us. We are your loyalists.”
“Your governor owns the contract. I’m just overseeing things for him.”
“You’re the man he listens to,” the SSG said. “You could convince him to make some concessions.”
Oloye Bab barely paid attention as he looked at Moyo and Sidikat at a table in the center of the hall. They both wore brown, floral-patterned ankara blouses and skirts. Moyo’s back was to him, but he could see Sidikat’s long face with its two horizontal marks on both sides of her full cheeks, which looked like dashes and which the locals called “minus-minus.” When he had invited the two women to dinner earlier in the day, Sidikat had promised that she would persuade Moyo to meet him here tonight.
Since the first day he had seen Moyo, Oloye Bab had desired her. She worked in Policy and Planning, a department in the governor’s office, which offered him the opportunity to pursue her. The more he’d persisted, the more Moyo had turned him down, but she always did so with subtlety and class.
At the close of work one day, Oloye Bab had seen Moyo and another woman going toward the bus stop. He had his driver pull up alongside of them and he lowered his window, offering the women a ride. When the second woman entered his newly-acquired Mercedes Benz, Moyo reluctantly followed. The woman, Sidikat, worked in the Ministry of Health and now acted as a go-between for Moyo and him.
“Oloye, this is for you,” the commissioner said.
Oloye Bab turned and took a brown envelope from him. When he opened the envelope, he found a check of five hundred thousand naira. He poured himself more sparkling wine, which bubbled and foamed to the rim of his glass. “I’ll try to talk to the governor about your proposal.”
The SSG dropped ice into his champagne, which splashed on the table. “You should be able to convince him.”
Oloye Bab shrugged. “Well, it’s possible.”
“How is the road to your house coming along?” the commissioner asked.
“The construction will begin next week.” Oloye Bab checked his watch. “If you will excuse me, I must attend to my guests downstairs.” He drained his glass and set it down with a sharp tap. “I’ve kept them waiting for too long.” He ambled down the stairs, wrinkling his nose as he went past two men expelling plumes of smoke.
He sat at Moyo and Sidikat’s table. “My apologies for keeping you waiting.”
“No need to apologize, sir. We’re enjoying ourselves.” Sidikat beamed and showed her gold tooth.
Oloye Bab winked. “I hope I’ve not kept Moyo here for too long.”
Moyo fingered her pendant. “No, sir.”
“Take your wine.”
“I am drinking it.”
“It’s yours. Take everything.”
Sidikat topped Moyo’s glass up and held it out to her. “This won’t make you tipsy.” Moyo accepted the glass and sipped from it. “Take everything. It won’t hurt you. I won’t lead you astray,” Sidikat added.
Moyo held the glass, staring at the drink.
“Stop dawdling. It’s far better than any wine you’ve had before.”
Moyo finished her drink.
Sidikat clapped in delight. “My job is done. I’ll leave you two.”
“Get ready for Mecca,” he told Sidikat, who choked on her wine. “Your name is on the list of the state’s delegation to Hajj.”
“Mecca?” Sidikat’s eyes widened.
“You’ll be among the next set of Alhajas.”
Sidikat half-embraced him. “Thank you.” She turned to Moyo. “Would you thank Oloye on my behalf? Mecca?”
“Alhaja Sidi,” Moyo teased her.
Sidikat pinched Moyo’s cheek. “Let me go dance the Hajj way.” She wriggled to the crowded dance floor where faces glistened like bottles of beer fresh from a refrigerator. A man approached her and whispered in her ear. She nodded. They began to dance together, his arms wrapped around her.
“Your friend is amiable. I like her spirit,” Oloye Bab said.
“She may dance with everyone there,” Moyo said.
Oloye filled her glass. “How is life in the civil service?”
“It could have been great if the government has not been owing us salaries.”
“But your arrears have been paid.”
“After we had suffered for four months.”
“Better days are ahead.”
“I should hope so.”
When Moyo had finished her wine, Oloye Bab asked they go out of the hall for a quiet chat. He led her into the starry night and they got into his Mercedes. After a half-a-minute silence, he said, “Why have you avoided me all this while?”
“If there’s a road that I shouldn’t pass again, it is that of an affair with you men.” She brushed nonexistent dirt from her lap. “I thought the road was smooth until I fell on it twice.”
“Your experiences with men must have been bad.”
“Bitter experiences. My first lover was Goke.” She shook her head. “I bore his expenses for four years because he had no job. I had entered the civil service then. When he finally got a lucrative job in an accounting firm, I was happy for him and happier for myself because I thought the long wait for our wedding would soon be over, but one evening he came home to tell me that we couldn’t get married because he’d gotten his boss’s daughter pregnant. For weeks I begged him not to dump me, but all my pleas were in vain. He said he’d been condemned to marry the girl, that he could lose his job if he didn’t accept responsibility.”
Tears spilled down her cheeks, and she swiped at them with the back of her hand. “He couldn’t tell the girl to abort the pregnancy. Yet, he made me abort twice.”
Oloye Bab felt a deep pity for her. “He treated you badly.”
“It was bad, but the worst was yet to come. After a while I met Tunji. Things were going well between us until he took me to meet his mother. We spent a weekend at his mother’s house. I washed her clothes and cooked the meals.”
“It shows what a good-wife-to-be you are.”
“That’s just the way I am. A week after the meeting, Tunji’s mother called him and told him she’d gone to a soothsayer to inquire about me. The soothsayer had said I was a disaster-in-waiting, because a ‘cloud of blood’ brooded over me. When I asked Tunji what the blood was about, he said the blood of the lives I’d aborted was crying for vengeance.”
She fought for composure. “I told him that his mother’s soothsayer was wrong. He said I was the one who hadn’t come clean to him; since he wasn’t my first man, it was impossible for me not to have been pregnant before we met.” She took a tissue from her bag and wiped her eyes. “I told him that I’d only been pregnant twice before and that I’d had the abortions because the man responsible had forced me to. He didn’t care whether it was twice or five times. The issue was that the lives I terminated were seeking vengeance, and he was not ready to be a victim of that vengeance.”
Sidikat approached the car. She leaned into the window. “I wanted to check on you. You’re crying?”
Moyo smiled sheepishly. “I’m just recalling . . . I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”
“We’re all right,” Oloye Bab said.
“Okay, I’ll wait for her at the bar.” Sidikat said, then went back to the bar.
“That was three years ago.” Moyo sniffled back her tears. “I was thirty-four. Tunji’s mother called me a murderer and swore that, in her lifetime, her son would never marry me. When I told her that I was two months pregnant with her son’s child, she said I should do whatever I liked with the pregnancy.”
Moyo was silent for so long that Oloye Bab had to prompt her to continue. “Tunji began to show me his vicious side. Whenever I went to his house, he beat me up. I was hoping he would change his mind because of the pregnancy. The last time I went there he beat both Sidikat and me. Sidikat’s artificial tooth is a souvenir of his beating.”
“You should have had him arrested.”
“Sidikat’s former husband did. But he was released on the second day. I guess the police were offered money.”
He smacked the steering wheel so hard it honked. “Why is there so much corruption in this country?”
“I thought I’d been cursed. They say that everything about a person’s future has been written before birth, that life is a book. I concluded that marriage was not in my book. I reasoned that, if I didn’t want to suffer further humiliation, I should stay away from men. I resolved to be alone.”
“What happened to the pregnancy?”
“I kept it. But the child was stillborn. He was beautiful. I wanted to have him as a kind of consolation.” She blew her running nose. “Why am I telling you all these things?”
“To let me know who you were.” He would overlook her past and gaze into her present, which he craved.
“Why do you want me? I’m young enough to be your daughter.”
“But not too young to be my wife.”
“To be your second wife? I heard your first wife is in London.”
“Canada. She has decided not to come back to Nigeria, and I can’t live alone.”
“I don’t want to be cast off again.”
“You won’t regret marrying me.”
Moyo asked him to let her reconsider his overtures one final time.
“Okay, okay,” he said.
In the evening six days later, Oloye Bab and Moyo sat in the same car. She gave him her yes, watching the sky’s yellowish, purplish and pinkish streaks melding into one another as if an invisible hand had turned it into a canvas.
The telephone woke Oloye Bab, a midnight call he would have loved to ignore. He groped across the bed, across the other half waiting for a woman, for the phone on the nightstand. Since Moyo had agreed to marry him, he hadn’t had the confidence to call his wife as he had in the early months after his return to Ibadan. Yewande might suspect from his voice that he had a mistress.
When he heard Yewande’s cold “hello,” he suspected that she’d heard about Moyo. “Happy married life,” she said.
“What do you mean?” His mouth felt dry and stale.
“I sensed it, but didn’t allow myself to believe it. I chose to trust you. That was a mistake.”
The scorn in her voice nagged him. “Your mistake was choosing not to return to Nigeria.”
“Only a shameless man acts the way you did.”
His eyes adjusted to the room’s darkness. “Because a selfish woman forced him to do what he did.”
“If you don’t want me to have another wife, you must come home.”
“Ibadan, of course.”
She switched to her Canadian accent. “To come and die?”
“I must have died and been reincarnated then.”
“I’ll sue you for bigamy.” Her voice cut like sharp glass.
He giggled. “Where would you file your suit? Quebec? Send the court papers to me with UPS.”
“You’re a disappointment to your children.”
The voice he heard next was Fadeke’s. “Hello, Daddy? What’s happening over there?”
“I needed a companion.” He slammed the receiver, then took the phone off the hook and went downstairs.
The steward, Taye, sat on the sofa, his long legs stretched out on the plum-colored rosewood coffee table, watching a video. The marble floor glimmered under the bright silver chandelier. Oloye Bab went to sit at the wine bar. Taye came by and brought out a bottle of Malbec. His sleeves were folded up, revealing his hairy forearms. As the steward filled a glass for him, Oloye Bab watched the bubbles rise and burst. He gulped the wine, which trickled down his chin to his pajamas. Who had told his wife about his soon-to-be-held traditional wedding with Moyo? He’d wanted the wedding held before she found out.
Moyo’s heels clicked along the walkway that led from the house to the garage.
“When will my car be ready?” she asked her mechanic.
Taju, the gangling, uneducated mechanic fixing her Jeep Cherokee, lived in poverty at Ile Ero, the three-story tenement house in front of Moyo’s duplex. He lay on a runner as he worked under the front of the car. “I am soon to finish, Ma.”
“Finish quickly. I’m going out with the first lady.”
Sometimes Moyo reported to Mrs. Felicia Etomo instead of her office at the secretariat. Who would question her? Her husband was the Governor’s man, which had even gained her a promotion, hoisting her from Grade Level 10 to 13. Once, she’d accompanied the first lady for two weeks without seeking the permission of her immediate department head. When she returned, the permanent secretary queried her about her absence. She informed Mrs. Etomo, who in Moyo’s presence gave him a verbal thrashing, threatening to fire him from the Service.
Sidikat emerged from the house. She stopped midway and tutted. Joining them, she asked, “Why is he taking so long to finish?”
“He is too slow for my liking. I won’t use his service again,” Moyo said. Sidikat and Moyo could have been twins: Both wore white iro and buba organza lace and red head-ties; they had kohl-lined eyes, jeweled fingers, and wore diamond-studded pendants. They had first met at the entrance examination for the Civil Service. When the Service had posted successful candidates’ assignments, they had both been assigned to the Ministry of Education, where their friendship had blossomed. Four years later, Sidikat was transferred to the Ministry of Health, but that didn’t stop them from seeing each other and talking as usual about hair-dos, men, parties, and fashion. Later, Moyo was transferred to the Governor’s Office. She had two other friends, Kofo and Motun, but Sidikat was the only one around with whom she could strip to her panties. And it was Sidikat who encouraged Moyo to continue with the pregnancy that had led to the stillbirth.
Taju slipped from beneath the car, sweat streaming down his pockmarked face. He scratched his scar-mottled scalp. “Mommy, please use me. I now finish.”
“Don’t call me mommy. Don’t let my husband hear that. I have no son anywhere.”
He jumped behind the steering wheel. Revving the engine, he grinned as if he’d been told he could have the car.
Sidikat knocked on the driver’s door. “Hurry up. Don’t waste my time.”
After he’d backed the car out of the garage and given Moyo the key, Taju stretched and flexed his spine, revealing the brownish, tangled hair of his armpits. Moyo paid and dismissed him.
Two minutes later, Moyo drove out of the gate onto their recently tarred road (the tar ended in front of their house, and her husband had named the road after himself – Babatunde Agbeja Road). Her friend was unusually quiet. Approaching a T- junction, Moyo asked, “Are you okay?”
Sidikat’s face tightened. “How can I be?”
“You’re feeling sick?”
“You made me feel sick.”
“What do you mean?” Moyo said, thinking, You sometimes talk in a funny way.
“You were proud to tell Taju that you have no son. Bearing Oloye no children might become your greatest undoing.”
“Oloye doesn’t want children. It’s as simple as that.”
Sidikat turned dark eyes on her. “Stop! The party can wait.”
Moyo drove on. The issue at hand didn’t warrant stopping the car.
“I asked you to stop.” Sidikat whacked her on her thigh. “I’m tired of hearing that Oloye doesn’t want children.”
Moyo pulled off the road. She pinned a gaze on her. Why was Sidi bad-tempered this afternoon?
“Wasn’t it silly of you to make that kind of agreement?” Sidikat pursed her lips. “One day, his first wife will come back and send you packing.”
Moyo laughed. “Impossible. We have the same rights in his house.”
Sidikat mimicked her. “We have the same rights in his house.”
“Prove it. Show me the evidence of the equality.”
“Evidence?” Moyo turned the word over with her tongue.
“Look.” Sidikat pointed to a young woman coming toward them. The woman cradled a little girl whom she shielded from the blazing sun with a small umbrella. “That’s her evidence in her hands. Where is yours? Listen, whatever you think you’re enjoying is only for the moment. You won’t have a voice in that house unless you bear his child.”
“He told me he doesn’t want any children.”
“Do you want to exit this world without leaving a child behind?”
Moyo was silent. She had accepted Oloye Bab’s advances with some skepticism. And when he had told her before their wedding that he did not want more children, she had seen nothing wrong with it. She had been on contraceptive pills ever since.
“What do you think I should do?”
“Get pregnant! Bear children for him.”
“I’m on the pill.”
“Flush them down the toilet.”
A prickling of unease passed through Moyo. Her husband might be upset if she got pregnant.
“I don’t want to offend him.”
“There’s nothing to fear.” Sidikat was confident, boisterous. “Tell him the pregnancy was accidental, that you didn’t know the contraceptives could fail.”
“How can I tell him all these lies?”
“I’m sorry. It’s been so long since I had a husband that I’ve forgotten it is bad for a wife to lie to her husband.”
Moyo glanced at her, understood her sarcasm. She leaned her head against the headrest.
Moyo sat in the waiting room of the Fountain Hospital, crossing and uncrossing her legs, unmindful of the woman groaning beside her. She waited for her test results. What would she do if it revealed her womb had been damaged? What would Sidikat’s next advice be?
Moyo’s sudden insecurity had led her to follow Sidikat’s advice after Oloye Bab made his first journey to Quebec. “It is clear that Oloye’s first wife is again uppermost in his heart. Now you’re no different than a spare tire to him,” Sidikat had derided her.
So Moyo had stopped taken precautions. It had been two months since Oloye came back, but she felt no life in her womb and continued menstruating normally. She had initially discarded the thought of visiting a hospital to have her uterus checked, because she feared hearing that her previous abortions had damaged it. Her jealousy at seeing Oloye regularly communicate with Yewande on the phone finally decided it: she would see a doctor.
Now Moyo’s beating heart roared in her ears, overwhelming the sounds in the room: the heavy breathing of the other patients, the wailing of babies, the clicking of heels across the marble floor. When her doctor appeared in the hallway and beckoned her to the consultation room, she imagined a monster was waiting to drive a dagger into her heart.
She sat across from him and glanced into his brown eyes. He handed the test results to her. Her hand jittered like an unbalanced blender.
“Don’t fret, Mrs. Agbeja. Your uterus is healthy. I suggest you tell your husband to come in for a test. Then we’ll know what to do next.”
She scratched her cheek. Impossible. She couldn’t ask her husband to come to the hospital.
Perhaps her husband’s sperm count was low. Maybe age affected its motility. She had to find a way to boost his fertility. Perhaps medicinal herbs would work.
From then on, she regularly crushed some fertility herbs into a powder and mixed it into his drink. She even added some powdered rhino horn into his food. Still she had no morning sickness.
One Saturday afternoon, she burst into Sidikat’s apartment and slumped into an armchair. “I can’t get pregnant. Things aren’t working out as I expected them to.”
“Maybe it’s your womb.” Sidikat stood in front of the low shelf, which housed a TV and a video machine.
“I went for tests and the doctor said that everything was okay. He told me to tell my husband to come for an examination, which of course is not possible.”
Sidikat moved behind Moyo, laying her hands on her shoulders. “If the door and the windows are shut, there must be another way out of the room.”
“How?” Moyo pressed her lips together.
Sidikat came around to stand in front of her. “You create another opening. You cast your net wide.”
“Cast my net wide?”
“Try another man.”
Moyo’s stomach flipped. “That’s infidelity.”
“Come on!” Sidikat flapped a hand at her. “What do you know about infidelity? These things are relative. You would be doing this for the greater good.”
Accustomed to Sidikat’s brazen utterances, Moyo reckoned her friend’s streetwise directness reflected her background. Where she had grown up in a run-down area of Ibadan, it wasn’t unusual for a woman to have six children with four men. Sidikat had three children with two different men. When she was sixteen, she gave birth to her first child, a boy, whose paternity was the subject of debate for a long time. She had her two daughters with an ex-chairman of the local Road Transport Workers Union. The man already had three wives when she married him. When he married a fifth, she left him.
Moyo couldn’t imagine herself sleeping with another man. Dangerous waters. “That’s horrible. I can’t do it.”
Sidikat applauded her in a mock fashion. “What is more horrible than a woman living with a man without bearing him children? What is more horrible than you leaving the earth and leaving nothing of yourself behind?”
Sidikat’s words pricked Moyo’s heart like a dart. She sobbed. “I can’t sleep with another man.”
“You don’t want a child?”
She wanted a child, but she feared the repercussion of Sidikat’s idea. Sidikat sat on the arm of Moyo’s chair and wiped away her tears. “It might be hard for you. But isn’t it a risk worth taking?”
“How can I give Oloye another man’s child?”
“This is nothing unusual. You would not be the first to do it.”
“What if he found out?”
“He wouldn’t. There are many dads out there who are taking care of children they didn’t father. Men are gullible because of their vanity. Your husband will be no exception. In this clime, a woman with no children is without honor in her husband’s family, remember?”
Moyo hung her head. Why were things getting so complicated?
Sidikat, eyes misted, folded Moyo into her embrace. “I’m not leading you astray. All I want is your happiness.”
Silence settled between them.
“How do I get another man to agree to this?” Moyo asked in a low tone as if there were cameras in the room. “How would I persuade him to keep quiet?” What she was ashamed to say was, How could I get a strange man to sleep with me?
“We can use the mechanic boy.”
Moyo pulled away from her, glaring at her. “Taju? The dirty mechanic? Never!” She picked up her bag and stomped toward the door.
Sidikat followed her and said evenly. “He is the only person I can think of. He should be easy to persuade.”
Moyo slammed the door in her face.
Moyo knocked on the door numbered ‘64’. When it opened, Sidikat’s expectant face met hers. Moyo shuffled past her, then plopped down on the queen-size bed, rubbing her brow as if to ward off a headache.
“How did it go?” Sidikat closed the door and then went to stand in front of Moyo. She crossed her arms and looked down at her friend. “Are you okay? What about Taju?”
Moyo gagged as if she wanted to vomit.
Sidikat unfolded her arms. “So quickly? That’s a sure sign of pregnancy.”
“Stop it!” Moyo huffed. “Had someone told me three months ago that I’d undress for him, I’d have called her a bitch.”
It had taken four weeks for Moyo to accept sleeping with another man; now she wished it hadn’t happened. She loathed Sidikat for prevailing over her to accept that Taju would have to be the one—the only one Sidikat said they could easily buy over.
“I’m not a bitch, am I?” Sidikat asked in earnest.
“He stinks,” Moyo scoffed.
Sidikat wrinkled her nose. “You should have told him to shower first.”
Moyo forced saliva down her throat.
When Taju had come into Room 19 of the Meridian Hotel some minutes ago, Moyo had told him to go into the bathroom. The hotel was some twenty-five minutes’ drive from Moyo’s house, almost on the outskirts of the north of Ibadan, and they chose it to forestall the possibility of meeting people who knew them.
“I bathe for home, dear,” Taju said, moving toward her with his arms outstretched.
She held up a hand. “Who is your ‘dear’? Go in there and bathe!” she jeered.
As Taju lay with her, Moyo closed her eyes and tilted her head to the side. The moment he released into her, she pushed him away, then scampered to the bathroom as though the feel of his touch and the smell of his sex were a contamination she must quickly wash from her body.
Now Moyo breathed against a pillow. “It was terrible!”
“That doesn’t matter. You didn’t have him for pleasure; you had him for procreation,” Sidikat said, then picked up her bag. “It’s nine-thirty.” She crossed to the window. A gibbous moon hung in the sky like a lonely loquat on a tree. She saw Taju shamble to the bus stop. Turning from the window, she said, “Let’s go.”
Moyo sat there, letting guilt sink its talons deeper into her heart. Her husband, somewhere chairing Etomo’s nightclub cabinet, wouldn’t return home until midnight.
Moyo opened the passenger door of the Cherokee. She got in next to Sidikat, who was slouched behind the wheel eating roasted corn in the parking lot of the University College Hospital.
“It’s positive. I’m five weeks pregnant,” she announced.
Sidikat slid upright and took the test result from her. “This is great news! My choice of Taju has been justified.”
“But how do I tell Oloye?”
Sidikat turned over the ignition. “I don’t live with him; you do. You should know how to speak to your own husband.”
That night, Moyo perched on the edge of the bed, her heart quaking the equivalent of a 1.3 on the Richter scale. Lying under the comforter, Oloye touched the back of her nightgown and found it wet with sweat. “Do you have a fever?”
“What’s wrong? Are you worried about your promotion? Your letter is on Etomo’s table. He should sign it before the end of the week.”
“It’s not about that.” She looked down at her lap. How could she present this lie convincingly?
“What is it, then?”
She raised her head. “I’m afraid—”
“What are your fears? Tell me.”
She sank to her knees. “My contraceptives failed me.”
He stared long at her, as if reading the meaning of ‘my contraceptives failed me’ on her face. “So? How does that affect me?”
“I. . . I’m pregnant.” The words felt like shards of glass coming out of her throat.
Oloye sat up abruptly and looked her over. “I thought we had an agreement?”
“Forgive me. I don’t know how it happened.” She pressed her fist against her mouth, her eyes now gushing like Victoria Falls.
They fell into silence, which clacked in her ears.
After a few moments, he asked, “What do you want to do now?”
She fidgeted. “Do?”
“What is your plan for the pregnancy?”
“I want to have the baby,” she whimpered.
“Who says you should have an abortion? The fetus has a right to live, doesn’t it?”
She took his words to mean a “yes” to the pregnancy. Her scheme had worked out, but she remained on her knees, feigning soberness.
“You should come to bed. You won’t remain there till tomorrow,” he said.
The evening sky was open and blue. Oloye sat at a table in his front yard, reading Sunday Guardian. Moyo brought him a snifter of Zinfandel, her bump thrusting out behind her taffeta gown. The bump was so big she sometimes wondered if it was the baby screaming “Oloye, you’re not my dad! I’m not your baby!”
He flipped through the pages of the newspaper. “I’ll be going to Canada next week.” “What? Impossible.”
He sipped his wine and then continued reading.
Moyo may have drunk from the Zinfandel before bringing it to him, but her mouth tasted like vinegar now. “You shouldn’t leave me alone at this time.”
“I need some time off to rest,” Oloye replied, his gaze at her filled with hostility.
She framed her belly with both hands. “I have one month to go before the baby comes.”
“I have to see my children.” He put down the paper and headed into the house.
Sitting down, Moyo puffed air out of her cheeks. Was he still pained that Colonel Etomo’s reign had come to a sudden end two weeks ago? Would he have travelled if his man hadn’t been removed as the governor of the state? She stroked her belly, as if telling the unborn child, “Don’t worry; that’s the father you’ll grow up to know.”
When Moyo finally gave birth to her child, Oloye was away in Canada. At the maternity ward, Sidikat held the baby boy. “This is enough joy for you. Don’t be sad about Oloye’s absence. You’ve now given yourself a strong footing in his house.”
“I wonder if Taju might be—”
“He’s no issue at all. We’ve done well to let him go to Libya. I don’t see him coming back in the next ten years,” Sidikat whispered.
Five days after Moyo’s delivery, Oloye returned, and life continued as normal between them. He didn’t hesitate to cradle the child, Bosun, who shared Moyo’s face.
On two occasions, Oloye went to patronize the new governor, but he was given no audience. He’d had his time during Etomo’s tenure. Weren’t a five-star hotel and other chains of properties within and outside the city his gains?
The Civil Service Commission reviewed appointments and promotions in the Service and found that Moyo’s rise to the post of Deputy Director was not in accordance with standard practice; as a result, the Commission dropped her back to a Level 12. She knew this was payback from senior officers whose toes she had stepped on when her husband was a strong figure in the government, and she refused to accept the demotion and consequently left the Service. It was time to fulfill her long-time dream of setting up a supermarket.
Over the next months, everything went smoothly as she turned one of Oloye’s properties into the largest one-stop store in the city. It filled three separate floors, and it was in her office on the middle floor that Sidikat took one look at her and said, “You’re pregnant again.”
“Yes. Seven weeks,” Moyo said.
“Who’s the man?”
Must you know who he is? “Oloye.”
“Oloye?” Sidikat’s mouth turned up into a doubtful smile.
“You don’t believe me?”
“We both understand our lies.”
Her friend was not a woman she could easily fool, yet Moyo said offhandedly, “Miracles do happen.”
“That’s why we went to such great lengths to create the first one.”
“You don’t need to know him.” Moyo swiveled around on her chair. “I’ll handle that end.”
The young man who had impregnated her was a recent university graduate whose vanilla fragrance preceded him. He had come to the supermarket to buy some items. She wasn’t sure if it was their second or third time together in bed that resulted in the conception. She had paid him handsomely.
“You shouldn’t have done it behind my back,” Sidikat said with a flash of irritation.
“Why not? Don’t I deserve some measure of privacy?” Moyo’s voice, though low, was resentful.
“This pregnancy is too soon. Bosun is barely a year old.” Sidikat eyed the picture of the grinning boy in a silver frame.
“He’s already toddling. Isn’t he old enough to have a sibling?”
Sidikat quietly walked out of the room. If Moyo knew that her friend was walking out of her life, walking out to be a fiend, she would have called her back.
The death of General Abacha changed the political landscape of the country. In his maiden broadcast to the nation, the new military ruler highlighted his readiness to restore Nigeria to a democratic path. When he subsequently announced the timetable for the new transition programs, Moyo mobilized Oloye’s allies to convince him to run for the office of state governor. The attention enjoyed by a first lady, the massive entourage at her command, which she had witnessed in the company of Mrs. Etomo, was her motivation. She could also get back at those who had championed her demotion in the Civil Service.
Oloye’s decision to run didn’t please Yewande. Two weeks before his party’s primary, Moyo answered a phone-call from Yewande who accused Moyo of not caring about Oloye’s life.
“Stop pursuing a selfish interest at the expense of his life.”
Moyo sat comfy on the bed. “Do you care more about him than I do?”
“If you cared about his life, you would oppose his decision to go into politics,” Yewande snapped.
“He is my husband. A good woman must give her man her full support.”
“Are you a good woman? You’re not.”
“Jealous Mama, your opinion doesn’t matter.” Moyo let out a derisive laugh. “I’ll be the first lady, while you’ll rot in envy.”
“You’re a bitch,” Yewande said.
Moyo snarled, “You too are a bitch. Your daughters also are bitches.”
Oloye came into the bedroom. Moyo hung up and greeted him.
“Who was that?”
Avoiding his eyes, she muttered, “Your woman in Canada.”
“And you dared to call her a bitch?”
“She called me a bitch first.”
“So what?” Red-faced, he crossed to her side.
“She said that—”
“Shut up! I don’t want to hear you speak again.” His voice sounded like the whining of a lorry engine in need of a mechanic.
Moyo shrank back, crossing her hands over her protruded belly. He stared hard at her, the lines on his face creasing. His throat seemed to be working up insulting words, which he eventually swallowed, and then he left the room.
She may have loathed Yewande for opposing her bid to become the first lady, but wouldn’t it be better to pretend that she adored her if only to be in Oloye’s good favor? She would apologize and tell him that she would not dishonor Yewande again. But when she drifted off to sleep about eleven p.m., he had not returned.
About twelve-thirty a.m., a knock at the bedroom door broke into her sleep.
“Ma’am?” Taye called.
“What do you want?” she asked, still groggy.
“You have some visitors.”
What manner of visitors would come at this time? “From where?”
“They said they are policemen.”
What had happened? Shrugging into her robe, she lurched off downstairs.
“What is it?” she asked the two men.
“Ma’am, something bad has happened,” the shorter officer said.
“My husband is not at home.”
“We’re sorry. I’m afraid it’s your husband,” the second officer said. “He was killed last night while returning home.”
The news was a fist in her gut. The sandwich and tea she took two hours before turned in her inside. She ran back upstairs to her bathroom and vomited into the basin. She sank down onto the floor and held her throbbing head. Oloye’s first wife will soon be back. Certainly. What’ll be my fate? What’s in Oloye’s will for me? Oh Sidikat, where have you gone? I shouldn’t have fallen out with you. I will need you now.
In the days that followed, Yewande stormed Nigeria, and so the animosity that had begun over the phone between her and Moyo continued. Yewande was laying claim to the house, which she said Oloye and she had built before he met Moyo.
One evening, they encountered each other in the hallway.
“You’ll soon leave here. I’m only waiting for Oloye’s funeral to pass,” Yewande said.
“I’m a rock. Unmovable.” Moyo pranced a few steps away and then back to Yewande. “Take your bitch head back to your bitch daughters.”
Yewande punched Moyo in the face. She doubled over, blood trickling from her nose. Enraged, she raised her hand and aimed a fist at Yewande, but another hand grasped hers from behind. Taye’s.
Moyo struggled to free her hand. “Let me go!”
“Don’t, ma’am,” Taye pleaded.
Moyo swung her leg, but it caught only air. Taye held her firmly. Yewande went into her room.
The next morning, with the sun peeping from behind a cloud like a recalcitrant child behind a closed door, Moyo drove to the police station. The air conditioning in the car couldn’t cool her grate-hot resentment against Yewande.
A desk sergeant and his female counterpart sat behind a high-level desk with a telephone that had to be dead because no cable connected it. On the wall behind them was the inscription ‘Bail is free’. Moyo knew it wasn’t that free; it had never been. Weren’t some officers given to lucre? With money she could bend them for her cause. She asked for the divisional police officer, and the policewoman led Moyo to her boss’s office.
In the office, Moyo found a heavy-set man putting some files away in a cabinet. Then he took a seat at his desk.
“I’m Mrs. Moyo Agbeja.” She eased herself into the guest’s chair. “The wife to the late—”
“Oloye Babatunde Agbeja. I’m so sorry about your husband’s death. My colleagues in the homicide will find the killer.”
She wrung her hands. “I was assaulted.”
He thrust his face forward. “By who?”
“My husband’s first wife. Since she came to the country, I’ve not had peace of mind. I’m afraid my life may be in danger. Yesterday, she beat me so much that my nose bled.”
“Doesn’t she see you’re pregnant? Why was she acting cruelly?”
` “Oloye’s properties. She wanted to have everything,” she lied. “Please save me, save my unborn baby.” She paused as he scrawled a few notes on a notepad. When he stopped writing, she reached into her bag and brought out a white envelope containing five thousand naira in fifty-naira bills.
“This is”—she handed it to him—“for you. Please do something about her.”
“We’ll do our job.” He came around the desk, walking her to the door.
The next day, two uniformed policemen came for Yewande. They told her it was an invitation to appear at their station to clarify some matters. But after being accused of assault and battery, she was held in a cell the size of a closet. The seepage of rainwater had imprinted a tapestry of deltas on the upper part of the wall facing the door. In the night she had a mat to lay on the concrete floor and a lantern to illuminate the room, while an orchestra of mosquitoes played around her ears.
After two days, Oloye Bab’s cousin, Toba, with a pimple-stippled face, secured Yewande’s bail. She looked filthy. The stink of the cell clung to her dark blue embroidered caftan. She’d been humiliated and, as they drove back home, she couldn’t wait to disgrace Moyo out of the house.
When Yewande returned home, she met Oloye Bab’s eldest brother Chief Jaiye and some members of the extended family in the living room, scolding Moyo for getting her arrested. But that wouldn’t pacify Yewande. “I don’t want her here,” she insisted.
“I’m going nowhere,” Moyo said breezily.
“Wouldn’t you consider her pregnancy?” Chief Jaiye asked. He seemed to have an aversion to a razor with his dense of gray sideburns and beard looking like an overgrown lawn. “What about”—he gestured to Bosun who was playing with a miniature train on the floor—“this little boy?”
Yewande shook her head. “Neither the pregnancy nor this boy is Oloye’s. She agreed with Oloye that she would never bear him children.”
“Bitch, liar!” Moyo yelled. “We later changed our minds.”
Chief Jaiye shifted in his seat, his gaze switching from Yewande to Moyo.
Yewande went upstairs, the stink of her fury in her wake, and came back in a rush, holding a manila envelope. “She should tell us who Taju was.”
Moyo’s heart pounded. Who had told her about Taju?
Yewande withdrew from the envelope two papers and held one out to Chief Jaiye. “Please read it. It is our copy of the consent forms Oloye and I signed when he had a vasectomy in Canada, after I gave birth to Folahan.”
Toba took the document and read out.
September 13, 1978
I, Babatunde Agbeja, authorize Dr. Mark Bolt to perform a bilateral vasectomy on me. I understand that this procedure is performed through a small scrotal incision or punctures and a small portion of each vas is removed and may or may not be sent for pathological…
Moyo’s cheeks burned, her heart slamming fiercer.
I understand that this procedure is being performed to achieve permanent sterility, meaning I will be unable to father any further children once my semen specimens are cleared of sperm and…
Oloye knew all the while that he couldn’t have fathered her son. She once had asked him about the scar in the front of his scrotum. He had evaded the question.
By signing the consent form, my wife and I acknowledge that I have been fully informed and understand the risks and purpose of this procedure. Therefore, I take responsibility for…
“Taju fathered her son, not Oloye. Her friend Sidikat confessed to Oloye,” Yewande announced when Toba finished the reading.
Waves of shock surged through the room. Pupils widened.
Yewande told the family that Oloye had removed Moyo’s name from his will after she told him she was pregnant again. “His lawyer will come to reveal the will,” she said.
Moyo’s head spun. The floor seemed to quake under her feet. She dashed out of the house, past the walkway, and past the gate. She lifted the hem of her black Akwa oche gown and ran down Babatunde Agbeja Road, skipping potholes that once again occupied the road. Her heart raced with her legs, her breathing belabored. Was she back to zero point? Her grief poured out in tears, flooding her eyes. The wine Sidikat persuaded her to drink had hurt her. She pressed on as if running away from her shame. A chaos of pain unleashed itself on her. A few meters before the main road, she felt woozy and missed her footing at another pothole. She stumbled, falling awkwardly onto her back, feeling a bone-deep pain.
Passers-by rushed to her, but she didn’t see them, didn’t hear their voices of concern. She sprawled on the ground with one arm across her face, writhing in pain. She felt a hand slipping the arm from her face. The world swirled around her. ■