‘‘I am fed up. Fed up. Fed up.’’ Rose sounded like an old-fashioned LP stuck in its groove as she flipped onto her bed for a rare moment of respite. What kind of a goddamned life was she living? She sighed deeply. Recently the days had been hell, but today was hellishly hell. The twins had gone down with a bad cold that compounded their teething problems that morning; the landlord who had become as friendly as a lioness robbed of her cubs since she politely but firmly rejected his advances two weeks ago had slapped her with a hundred percent rent increase; her co-operative society fees were due and only God knew where she was going to get the money; and as if her cup was not overflowing her youngest sister had sent her a text message earlier that evening informing her that their mother had suffered a relapse in her battle against malaria and was in the hospital. Rose and her mother were not the best of friends since she took that crazy step a year ago but then Mrs. Njideka Adiele was still her mother.
Rose took a deep breath as her eyes ran for the umpteenth time to the king-sized cot opposite her bed. Though Chinagorom and Chinemerem were sound asleep she could not stop anxiety from knotting her stomach. ‘‘They will be okay,’’ Dr. Ademola had reassured her. The drugs he had administered were working but Rose could not stop the occasional flutter of her heart. God, she half-prayed, half-threatened, unless you want my faculties to shut down completely, let nothing happen to my babies.
‘‘My babies? Whose babies?’’ The words marched unbidden into her consciousness like a soldier commandeering a bloody civilian’s property. Rose closed her eyes in an effort to blank out the pictures; what she needed now was rest. But her mind’s projector was bent on showing the pictures in glorious Technicolor.
She should not have married Ilomuanya in the first place. But the throes of love can make a tall, dark, pretty holder of two first degrees in History and Mass Communication blind to reality. Perhaps what made her rush headlong like a London underground tube was her parents’ unabashed relief that at long last their first daughter had accepted that there was more to life than books. Maybe God had been saving her all along for a book-man because Ilo was an erudite lawyer and lecturer at the state university.
But books a man’s character do not make. At least in Ilo’s case. He carried on like a hyperactive bachelor, winning the infamous Imo State University’s ‘Playboy of the Year’ award back-to-back for three academic sessions running. He did not have to struggle too hard: he was handsome, well educated and very comfortable. When Rose complained he told her point-blank: ‘‘Did you catch me? Can you prove my so-called infidelity in a law court? Besides, being an African with boundless genes, matters can be legitimized, you know.’’
The last statement was a not too subtle statement intended to shut Rose up. She had suffered three miscarriages in a row, and then her baby-production system clammed up altogether. The doctors were reassuring; she could still conceive. But Ilo was not in the mood to wait for Godot.With the world’s backing, as epitomized by his mother, he went on a skirt binge. Initially no baby emerged from his escapades and this turned him into a bear with a very sore head. Then it happened: Kate Oluigbo, the sultry, svelte, soft-eyed but deadly-thighed rookie lawyer who had just joined his chambers succumbed to his scud missiles. Ilo was blunt: he was bringing in a woman since he could no longer continue living with a man.
‘‘But I am pregnant,’’ Rose cried desperately.
Ilo shrugged. ‘‘Then you just have to get used to a co-wife.’’
Rose would be damned if she could. She knew the world would not take things easy with her. Her recently widowed mother was an old-school Catholic; her two brothers would hem and haw; she could only count on her baby sister, Christiana. Then there was the economics of the whole affair. She had yielded to Ilo’s pressure and quit her job at a construction company. How would she cope? But that was a surmountable challenge. What would stick in her throat was continuing to swallow her husband’s brazen lifestyle.
When she told him her decision he looked at her in the same way Lucifer must have gazed at any of his troops who openly contemplated the folly of fighting God. ‘‘So you think you can fight me? Do you know I can finish you legally and extra legally?’’
‘‘I know my rights, my learned friend.’’ The way she mouthed the phrase Nigerian lawyers used in addressing each other in court turned it into a slur of the highest order. Enraged, Ilo pounced but Rose ran for dear life.
The next day she boarded a Lagos-bound bus from the new Imo Transport Corporation Park in Owerri. She was put up by her friend, a fiery human rights lawyer called Folake. Folake was a beautiful and brainy bomb who believed that God’s only mistake was populating Planet Earth with men. That belief did not stop her from occasionally enjoying one-night stands with some of God’s errors. She gladly took up the cudgels on Rose’s behalf. Once Ilo knew who his wife’s Minister for Defence was, he backed down and concentrated on life with Kate. He did not acknowledge Rose’s message when the twins were born. Who needed girls when Kate had spawned three healthy boys at a go?
Rose turned and tossed but sleep refused to come. The projector of her mind was in overdrive. She lay on her back, smiling mirthlessly as she realized that her mother would not have approved of her sleeping position. ‘‘It attracts evil spirits.’’ It was a superstition Rose could never reconcile with the devout Sacred Heart of Jesus member and retired teacher. She deliberately let her body go. The weightlessness filled her with drowsy pleasant and not-so-pleasant thoughts. Thoughts of Adrian Ekpe, her strapping colleague at the advertising agency where she had gotten a job; how he paid her attention; how he went out of his way to make the agency a haven for her; how he looked at her during lunch breaks. Adrian was great but he was a man. ‘‘One of the good Lord’s errors,’’ Folake had proclaimed magisterially over post-dinner drinks at her flat.
‘‘Na wa! Isn’t that too harsh?’’ asked Ibinabo, a banker and a mutual friend. The question corked Folake’s gun.
‘‘Not at all.’’ The lawyer then launched into a scintillating analysis of the vices of men folk. She drew from history, politics, gender issues, economics, even religion. The other women were transfixed. Folake was an orator’s orator; she could convince a Ugandan to canonize Idi Amin as the father of democracy in his country. Her arguments were solid. By the time she finished all the other guests had no doubt about what was wrong with the world. Thank God guys were never invited to Folake’s get-togethers.
Rose watched her friend’s virtuoso performance with a tinge of sorrow. Unlike the other guests she and Folake went back a long way. In their undergraduate days at the University of Ibadan Folake had fallen for the worst man imaginable. Kunle seethed with conservatism and inferiority complex. Although he depended on Folake’s savings he had no compunction beating her up at the drop of a hat. He loathed her when she consistently earned the highest cumulative grade point average in her class while he struggled with an average of one point for two sessions running. He wished she would drop Law for Education or some other ‘wifely discipline.’ It galled him when she was friendly with other men. Folake’s friends could not fathom what she saw in such a loser but then none of them had experienced the type of love that could unstick the brightest of women. Folake suffered and cried. She fought his bashing, his hemp smoking and his unashamed womanizing. But Kunle was like heroin in her blood.
In their third year Kunle sneaked into her room one night, looking as frightened as a cornered rabbit. He needed her help to go on the run. He had led a hit against the ‘Capone’ of a rival secret cult and the members were baying for blood. Even addictive love has its wrenching limits. Folake knew her man was no saint but a cult killer? How could she go on the run with him? She begged him to turn himself in to the university authorities and assured him of her assistance. Kunle definitely did not need this type of gospel. The row that followed got rather nasty. Kunle left his girl on the floor in a pool of blood and took off with all her cash he could lay his hands on. But his time had run out; cult killers from Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, pumped hot steel into him as he boarded a night bus to Kano.
Rose took another deep breath and wondered what a world without men would be like. A planet without unthinking, brutal, conscienceless, testerone-driven males? Of course there were exceptions like Adrian but, according to Folake, ‘‘scratch a devil and you get the fungus of hell in all demons.’’ It was probably hyperbolic but then Ilo had been an angel; a knight who shared her tastes in books and music; a gentle giant who listened to her even when her parents lost patience; a lover who made her nights an experience Romeo and Juliet would have lived for. When had the fungus of hell rubbed off on him? Or had it been there all along and she had not seen it? Tears threatened her eyes. She now realized that she could not just toss six years of her life out of the window. Her decision to move was right, but, God, what a rock-strewn, thorn-infested road she had travelled. She badly longed for a buffer against Alhaji Masha, her lecherous landlord. There was no soothing caress or listening ear to her tales of struggle with motherhood. There was only Folake and a couple of other girls but they had their own struggles and demons.
Thoughts of motherhood brought her to her feet. She moved noiselessly to the cot. The babies looked so heavenly in repose that an involuntary lump caught in their mother’s throat. Chinagorom was smiling. Was she having her first dream? To Rose’s amazement Chinemerem also started smiling. Talk of twin connection, their mother mused, her heart considerably lightened. The girls were perfect replicas of their father. Lord, let their hearts not resemble his, she prayed as she returned to her bed.
Relief at her children’s peaceful disposition greatly relaxed Rose. She turned on her side and closed her eyes. The thought of a manless world kept floating in and out of her mind. Uninvited, the song flowed into her mind. It was Folake’s anthem; a beautiful corruption of ‘Beasts of England’ in George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’:
Girls of Nigeria, Girls of Africa,
Hearken unto my voice
Of the golden tidings
Of a glorious future time.
Soon the day is coming
Tyrant man shall be overthrown
And the world will be blessed
With the lilies of female boon.
Bias, religion and broken hearts
Will be a memory
When the balance is restored.
‘When the balance is restored,’ ‘When the balance is restored’… the last line carried Rose into the arms of sweet sleep. Only for her to be rudely pulled out by Onyeka Owenu’s cheeky hit song ‘Ejim gi ugwoo’ which served as the ringing tone on her Samsung mobile phone. Stifling a curse, she reached for the phone and smiled when she saw the number. It was Christiana, now a first year Law Student at Imo State University. What is it that cannot wait till morning? Rose wondered.
‘‘Hello, Christie love.’’
‘‘Auntie.’’ Christiana’s normally bubbly voice was funeral-quiet. Rose felt a small man somersaulting down her spine. With an effort she fought off the dire thoughts threatening to engulf her.
‘‘Yes, hope all is well.’’
‘‘Sorry for disturbing you. It is…’’ Christiana swallowed. She was struggling with something in her throat. The small man’s somersaults down Rose’s spine became an unrestrained tumble. She could no longer control her dark thoughts.
‘‘What is it?’’ she half-cried. ‘‘Mama?’’
Christiana was crying softly, her fear and grief eloquently transmitted over the line. ‘‘No, it’s not Mama. It is Ilomuanya. He and his family were shot by armed robbers a few hours ago in their house.’’