Nothing had prepared her for these kinds of ‘choices.’ She’d had a care-free childhood and had grown up aware that everything and everyone around her existed for her own pleasure; Daddy had made sure of that. But that was before that night he called her to his study and wouldn’t let her perch affectionately on the arm of his chair like she wanted to do. She sat across, facing him like some client, listening as he appealed to her reasoning, never once her feelings.
‘’As you grow up, Iveren, you’re going to want other things,’’ he began in that codeless, sonorous, persuasive voice of his. ‘’Many of these will not be new shoes or new dresses, Brazilian hair or whatever it is that has you crazed right now.’’
She was nodding, her heart full with a desire to prove herself to her father. He sounded like he was coming apart at the seams, he had to be or he wouldn’t be so sombrely discouraging her from being the little girl his own doting paternal expertise had made her.
‘’You’re going to want things that go beyond your own little cocoon, believe me,’’ he continued. ‘’You will want a safe place when ‘Prince Charming’ comes along else it wouldn’t be much of a romance,’’ a brief chuckle followed this tense attempt at a joke. Iveren nodded once more.
Her father was a man who commanded respect from all who knew him, but he was no imposing presence in his own home. Everyone, including the house helps, was at ease with him as though he switched personalities as soon as he crossed the gate of his expansive mansion. It was a sobering experience for Iveren to sit across from him and listen as he talked with great bitterness about the senseless killing of villagers in gun attacks, Fulani farm raids, random acts of arson in the barns and huts of unassuming villagers and the violence that seemed to lurk everywhere these days.
‘’This is not the kind of place you want to live in,’’ he concluded with a shake of the head.
Iveren almost swallowed her heart. She didn’t want to leave the country; it wasn’t everything some were, but it was home to all the people she loved, the places that so captivated and held her in thrall and the one domicile her mind had built all her dreams around. She swallowed hard and nodded some more. If Daddy wanted serious today, she wasn’t about to be caught whining.
‘’Have you wondered, Iveren, why they do this?’’ Daddy startled her out of her self-pitying thoughts.
She began to shake her head then thought better of it and said, ‘’who knows for these terrorists, Daddy? They are really very unreasonable.’’
‘’Really?’’ his eyes considered her with such high expectations that she began almost to adulate the moment Daddy was looking at her like an intelligent being. ‘’And what do you find unreasonable about any of this?’’
She pouted in concentration and bit the tip of her tongue gently. ‘’Everything,’’ she gave an unconscious shrug. ‘’They think nothing about taking the lives of others, destroying things it took years, and money, and work, to build in the first place and then convincing themselves that they’ll go to heaven for it. Just imagine,’’ she answered quietly bringing her eyes from their sojourn to the ceiling to rest on her father’s face. He looked so suddenly old.
‘’So you don’t think that’s a way to heaven?’’ he probed so thinly it seemed his very soul was crying to be saved.
She chuckled mirthlessly. ‘’What kind of heaven, Daddy?’’ she dismissed the question with a shake of the head.
‘’Will you go to heaven, Iveren? And if you’re not sure, why condemn those who aren’t ashamed to try?’’ his eyes were drilling into her, rousing fear and apprehension with this most unexpected query.
‘’I…’’ she stuttered helplessly, tears welling in her eyes. ‘’I’m not the best human being, but I never killed before and I never will,’’ she said weakly in her own defence.
‘’So you see that it could be possible all this is not about going to heaven? If my little girl could get all jittery thinking of it, then I don’t see how a vagabond murderer can lay claims to it, ‘’ he said with a sigh.
Iveren looked on at him, puzzled.
‘’All I’m saying is we’ve been lured into a deep maze of er….er… Must everything be religious?’’ he probed her face inquisitively.
‘’But everything is religious, Daddy. I’ve heard people say that even a lack of religion is religion. Politics is, maybe, some sort of religion,’’ she countered desperately. Daddy was looking at her with such intent it seemed he’d lost any mental grasp of the fact that she was his daughter, the child.
‘’And every victim was, what… sacrificed on the altar of politics? Because, I tell you, this whole thing is politically driven,’’ his eyes strayed above her head. The air in the room was dense with looming tension. ‘’Groupthink! Why won’t we awake and see for ourselves what is happening, that this is not something a few fanatics concocted in their mediocre brains?’’ he exploded exasperatedly. ‘’Do you know a senator’s house, Iveren? The security? The expanse? The staff? So how does a miserable village mercenary end up in a senator’s house unless he was let in?’’
The silence seemed to be nibbling at Iveren’s sanity. She couldn’t imagine a coherent reason her father would call her to him and depress her like this.
‘’What if the whole purpose for all this is to replace us? Perhaps they want to be rid of us, voters and voted alike, just what if?’’
Iveren had no choice left. She had to say what seemed like the only thing her father wanted to hear. ‘’We must do something about it then,’’ she rolled her eyes resignedly.
This cheered her father so much he began to enthuse about a better, safer country, a place she would be proud to bequeath her children. There was nothing like a disinterested citizen, the country always caught up with you. Iveren listened patiently as he went on and on, until he got to the part where he had arranged the perfect marriage for her.
‘’Daddy!’’ she was alarmed.
‘’My dear, it’s for your own good and for the good of the country,’’ he explained casually.
‘’How is any country going to benefit from this?’’ she almost screamed.
Nguveren dared not raise her head. She inwardly flinched at the thought of beholding the stupendous expression of joy that must be drooling all over her excited best friend. She looked sideways, pretending to be much taken by something happening outside the window, all the while giving a pressured smile that must have seemed more like a grimace.
‘’I knew he would ask me, I just didn’t know when,’’ Iveren droned on. She sighed, squealed with obvious delight and jumped into Nguveren’s arms.
In spite of herself, Nguveren had to laugh. ‘’You will get used to the idea,’’ she said, tenderly trying to sober her much elated friend a little. ‘’You may even get tired of marriage!’’
Iveren gave her a look that seemed to question her sanity. Nguveren hissed, hoping that would carry the brunt of all she just wished she could tell the other girl. Marriage is none of your business, you are too young, too beautiful, too worthy to just give yourself away for the rest of your life like this. But she didn’t say any of the many whirring things hurling in the turmoil of her raging emotions. How dare Iveren even think of marriage?
‘’You, my dear best friend of childhood years will be my chief bridesmaid, of course? It’s not like you even have a choice,’’ Iveren cut into Nguveren’s thoughts.
She sighed resignedly and nodded, smiling genuinely for the first time since Iveren broke the horrible news to her. It was true that they were entirely different in many respects except for the singular reason that it was practically impossible for one to imagine life without the other. Iveren was the daughter of a political party chieftain, an exceptionally beautiful young lady of twenty-three who prided herself in her many accomplishments, among them a degree in Public Administration. She spoke English with such flair it made people want to listen to her regardless of what she was actually saying, and why not? Her father was Chief Terpase himself. She could have had her university education abroad if she hadn’t preferred instead to stay in Nigeria and go to a private university. Nguveren liked to think it was because of her; and Iveren never once contradicted her.
As she made her way home, a despondent wretch, Nguveren’s mind seemed to be working overtime on a plot for revenge. Was nothing sacred to that spiteful, capricious daughter of rich people? She, Nuguveren, would never have thought of marriage even if someone had asked her, because she valued her friend too much to let some stranger swoop in and usurp her place. Perhaps her mother was right all those times she had querulously wondered why Iveren insisted on being her friend. It was, after all, true that the other girl just wanted her around for contrast, a handy, live commendation to all her admirable and respectable qualities.
‘’Nguveren,’’ a panic-stricken child ran half naked towards her.
‘’What is it, Suter?’’ she asked, alarmed.
‘’Come,’’ he stopped before her and pointed to the dingy mud-plastered building that was home. ‘’Daddy is beating Mummy!’’ he wailed.
Nguveren hissed angrily and hastened her steps. By the time she got to the two-room apartment that was theirs in the big face-me-I-face you compound, the fight had dissipated and in its place loomed tense silence. Suter’s daddy was sitting in one of the musty, old cushion chairs and her mother was sobbing audibly in the inner room. She looked at the dirty, shrivelled man with such venom. He saw it and shook his head with comic incredulity.
‘’What is it?’’ his croaky weed and tobacco voice mocked her sardonically.
‘’You said you will stop doing it. Or do you want me to go and tell your oga in the office again?’’ she sternly reminded him. She had gone twice to the office where he worked as a security guard and reported his wife-beating gimmicks to his boss. After then, it abated for a while until now.
He examined her with pointed anger and shook his head spitefully. ‘’You bastard girl! Your papa no marry your mama, you no happy say the person whey marry her carry you join?’’ he railed at her with demonic delight. ‘’Na my wife she be; if I wan beat am I go beat am, you no fit do anything!’’
Nguveren looked on at him in silence, her gaze steady, eyes clear and dry. She would not betray any trace of emotion at his insults. He looked back at her, searching her expression. After some awkward moments of this, he sighed loudly and looked away.
‘’Tell your mama say I no get any woman for outside. No be every woman she see me dey relate with mean say I dey do anything. Na dat make whey I beat her. Simple,’’ he explained himself and went behind the three-sitter to ransack his things for a liquor bottle.
‘’I know that woman,’’ Mummy said from inside the room, her voice reeling with anger and accusation. ‘’Somebody even tell me! You no be good man, you no fit talk true,’’ she resumed her sobbing. The man promptly ignored her remarks.
He devoted all his life to smoking and drinking, having affairs with ugly beer joint women and leering at the beautiful, young ones that wouldn’t spare him a second glance. Nguveren found him more and more despicable every day. It was so disgusting to watch them fight like that and insult each other and herself to boot in the light of day, all the while gearing up for a night of noisome activity. She wished they could find some other kind of foreplay. But nothing could disguise the fact that her mother suffered from being married to this man. The little trade she did, hawking dry fish and cured meat, barely brought in enough money to cater for Nguveren and the other two children and all the while, the lecherous drunk squandered his monthly salary. Nguveren had vowed to herself that if ever she was deceived into getting married, she would marry a man who detested the taste of alcohol and the smell of cigarettes.
Respite came each time Iveren would ask her to travel along with her to some function or other. She had toured the whole country from Enugu to Danbatta, seen the many peoples, heard their many songs and stories and watched the scenery of such aloof and impassive beauty that seemed to elude nature’s awareness of the real human beings that inhabited it. It saddened her to think that Iveren would not travel so much after the wedding. Her husband may want her at home to gawk at, revelling at the fact that such a prize had been handed him on a platter of nothing. All the while she hated the idea of her best friend getting married; nothing could have prepared her for who she was getting married to.
‘’A Plateau man?’’ she couldn’t suppress a scornful chuckle.
‘’I know! It’s so exciting! At first when Daddy told me about him I thought mmmmm,’’ she mimicked a painful wince rendered without effect for all her ecstasy. ‘’I didn’t really care for any arranged marriage, but that was before I met Pwajok,’’ she paused and smiled so sweetly Nguveren had to restrain herself from smacking it off her face.
‘’What kind of name is Pwajok?’’ Nguveren derided.
‘’What kind of name is Nguveren?’’ Iveren rolled her eyes at her. ‘’Anyway, you should see him! Lemme show you a picture,’’ she fumbled around the chair for her phone and came up with the picture.
Despite herself, Nguveren had to concede that Pwajok was good looking. He looked surreal with his glowing skin and fine clothes. ‘’He is fine,’’ she sadly whispered.
‘’I know! His father is a senator,’’ Iveren searched her friend’s face for that flabbergasted, impressed look. She got it. ‘’Our parents can congratulate themselves on bringing us together, but the truth is we are in love with each other!’’
Nguveren had to laugh at her friend then; she was just like a little girl excited about getting a new toy. ‘’I’m happy to see you so happy,’’ she said and gathered Iveren in her arms.
It seemed love carried all the wedding plans along at such high speed Nguveren found she constantly needed to pause for breath. The date was already set and the wedding would be in Jos. When Pwajok came around, even she took to him instantly. He didn’t snob her and he didn’t insist on educating her about everything, presupposing that she wouldn’t know just because she wore a certain kind of dress and had her hair done after a certain fashion; she felt around him something she could barely remember feeling around Iveren – like an equal.
‘’Nguveren,’’ he once said, ‘’you Tiv people all speak English like this? It’s very interesting, but I like the more exaggerated versions they do on radio.’’
And for the first time in her life, she had laughed at her accent, even liked the way it marked out her identity. ‘’I wish I could speak so flawlessly like Iveren,’’ she’d said back.
‘’No!’’ he seemed scandalised. ‘’It makes you so special. Just keep doing it.’’ There was no disbelieving him when he passed a comment or gave a compliment because he wasn’t a people-pleasing flatterer and he was so rich he could afford not to be.
Then came the wedding month, when she accompanied Iveren to Plateau State to meet all the in-laws. Not everyone was like Pwajok, they mostly ignored Nguveren while they seemed to shower all their attention on the bride-elect. Nguveren didn’t mind, she enjoyed spending time with the house helps, learning to cook the kind of food they ate and learning that ‘’mafeng’’ meant thank you and ‘’sho’’ was the general word of greeting. She was too preoccupied to notice that even Iveren ignored her. She only saw her at bedtime, and that too because they shared a room.
A few days before the wedding, Iveren came to bed rather early. She seemed torn between choices, about to back out from the whole hasty affair.
‘’You’ll be fine, Iveren,’’ Nguveren consoled her in the silence. ‘’It’s just one day, y’hear? After that you won’t have to see so many people at once with all their attention on you again.’’
She had assumed that Iveren was nervous about the ceremony; the whole town would be practically shut down for that day. There was no Plateau politician worth the title who wasn’t certain to be present with his family and entourage, then the dignitaries from Benue who would all be there for Chief Terpase, in addition to friends of Iveren and Pwajok respectively. It was enough to worry anybody.
‘’I’m not worried about that,’’ Iveren chuckled. After a long silence she asked in a tiny voice, ‘’are you happy that I’m getting married?’’
Nguveren smiled and nodded. ‘’I wasn’t in the beginning, but that was before I met Pwajok.’’
‘’Do you like him?’’ Iveren pressed.
‘’What do you mean? He’s your husband. I think he’s nice,’’ Nguveren answered coolly.
‘’I think he’s in love with you,’’ Iveren said so casually it caused Nguveren to look at her askance.
She shook her head, seething with anger and hurt. ‘’How could you even say that?’’ her voice trembled from the weight of her rage.
‘’I’m just saying,’’ Iveren said in her own defence.
‘’If you don’t feel like getting married any more, please find another reason. Pwajok is completely in love with you,’’ Nguveren hissed.
Iveren burst into tears. She sobbed so much that Nguveren was moved to go over to her bed and hold her.
‘’It’s all because of Daddy’s election. I begged him so much but he refused. He needs funds for the campaign,’’ she said in a fitful outburst and laid her head on Nguveren’s lap. Nguveren was a little taken aback by this, she hesitantly began to stroke the other’s head.
‘’Why didn’t you tell me all this before? We could have got you pregnant by someone else or something less drastic,’’ Nguveren laughed a little. Iveren chuckled.
‘’And miss watching you be miserable? I decided to take my chances,’’ she lightly jibed.
‘’You knew how much it hurt me to hear you say you’re getting married just like that?’’ Nguveren was aghast.
‘’I was counting on it, seeing as you both love and un-love me at the same time,’’ Iveren smiled up at her. ‘’I’m sorry, I should have told you.’’
Nguveren nodded, her throat clogged and eyes tear-filled. ‘’I’m sorry too. I should have known.’’
All through the night, Nguveren schemed in her heart how she could save her best friend from the political calculations of her father. If I could get someone who would say there was a valid reason not to get married in church, but what am I saying? It’s a political wedding, it just has to happen, she thought to herself. So she helplessly watched as the plans continued to progress. Iveren went for rehearsals, had her hair done right, manicured and pedicured and shaved in a bid to be perfect for the day. And she watched Pwajok too, maybe it was true that he liked her, he never found anything about her offensive, not even the ridiculous accent, or her plump structure, or her hairstyles. The only thing that even vaguely irritated him about her was her devotion to Iveren.
She shook off the thought. If love had found her at last, it belonged solely to Iveren, the ever lucky one. It was then that Nguveren let the tears fall freely, unchecked, unrestricted. There was nothing attractive about her, not a family name, not an education, not some self-possessed carriage, not beauty, nothing. She might just as well not have existed at all. Iveren seemed to be the embodiment of all her dreams. She swiped at her tears with the resolve to be strong. Whether Iveren knew it or not, this wedding spelt the end to their friendship. She may see her again sometimes, but it would never be the same again. At this thought, more tears trailed down her face.
It was spectacularly beautiful to behold the church on that day. How everything seemed to be bubbling and dancing in colours! Posh cars glistened in the sun, beautiful, gorgeously dressed people were in limitless supply but Nguveren had eyes only for the bride. Iveren was a vision; she was so beautiful Nguveren wondered how come she never knew just how much. The church seemed custom-made for the occasion, everywhere was decorated according to the wedding planners’ specification, what they couldn’t rearrange, they redid. It took a lot of restraint for Nguveren not to cry as she marched behind her friend down the aisle. Her eyes were on nothing in particular, she just focused on the whiteness of Iveren’s dress, the bedizened silver threads that gave off a glitter when she caught the sun’s rays and her hair, skilfully wrapped atop her head and decorated with the most royal tiara.
Throughout the ceremony, Nguveren did her functions with a mechanical correctness, betraying neither joy nor pain. Sometimes she would be jolted back with a start when the preacher had said something witty or funny and there was a general buzz of reaction around her. She was like the dead among a throng of the vigorously alive. Feeling certain that she would either faint or be sick soon if she didn’t leave the place, she whispered some incoherent excuse to Iveren and hastily rose to leave. It wasn’t until she was safe in the seclusion of one of the toilets that she let out her suppressed feelings and sobbed and sobbed. She imagined her make-up must be ruined and her face a gory sight, but it only caused her to laugh sadly when she thought of what people may say if they saw her like this. She was ugly; and it wasn’t just today.
When she had calmed herself enough and wiped blindly at her face enough to feel secure about showing it to others, she made her way out of the toilet. She looked at the edifice before her from which strains of melodious music issued forth and sighed, something in her heart warned that she wasn’t yet ready to go back there. Some slight commotion at the gates drew her attention and curiosity got the better of her. When people gathered for the occasions of the rich and powerful, there was always some commotion at the gates. Scoffing under her breath, she was too preoccupied with her own thoughts to notice the woman before they crashed headlong into each other.
‘’I’m so sorry,’’ Nguveren began picking up the other woman’s toppled head dress.
The other’s eyes blazed impatient fury at her. In the middle of another apology Nguveren’s mouth flew open in shock as she saw the woman’s half displaced wig tip sideways to reveal a shaven male-looking head. She shrugged inwardly and consoled herself with the fact that she wasn’t the only one lacking attractive endowments as the other quickly readjusted her hair and put her headgear back in place. Nguveren went on to the gates where a little crowd had begun to convene. Some policemen slinging rifles across their chests strolled authoritatively back and forth, while the uniformed security guards were busy trying to calm the people or filling in the blanks of their curiosity. Walking up to one of the guards, she asked what was going on and he gladly filled her in.
‘’They just no wan make person hear word,’’ he grumbled. ‘’We say no machine for here and they come bring machine.’’
Nguveren laughed incredulously. ‘’All this because someone tried to bring in a motorcycle?’’ she didn’t pretend to understand what the fuss was about.
‘’Aunty, is more dan dat o! if governor come come see dem, wetin we fit talk? No be governor say make we stop to use machine?’’ his facial expressions varied as he uttered each word, each seeming to have its own distinct importance.
‘’I see,’’ Nguveren said and turned to leave. Iveren must be anxious for her return as she’d stayed out for quite a while.
Walking back to the church, she found she was much calmer after conversing with the guard. Everything looked quite as colourful and beautiful as before. Iveren truly had gotten married, an unreasonable and whimsical cementing of some political agreement of old men, who seemed to care for nothing else but affiliations and biases. Her thoughts carried her along as she approached closer and closer to the church building until she found herself flung aside, assaulted by flying debris and the aftermath of a riot of human sounds – painful groaning, panicked wailing, injured screaming, shocked shouting.
The church had just been bombed.
Someone read on the national news that night that Boko Haram had claimed responsibility for the bombing of a church in Jos, Plateau State, during the wedding solemnisation of Pwajok Gyang and Iveren Terpase, children of two prominent Nigerians. The perpetrators had entered the church disguised as women, wearing uniforms indicating their affiliation to the National Freedom Party. The intended couple lost their lives in the attack along with many other dignitaries.
Cards and phone calls went round to the lucky survivors from loved ones and well-wishers across the country. But Nguveren got none. No interviews, no phone calls, no visits, nothing. Two people had died in that place that were, to her, all the love her life had ever known – and Pwajok left her while still an unexplored possibility. Though she carried this sore wound in her heart and probably always would, the whole country seemed to have recovered after a few weeks, and a new frenzy caught the public – who to replace the dead public office holders.
Image: Jo Naylor (Flickr) & Pixabay.com