Rita pushed the door gently. ‘Please come in,’ she said.
Ejike stepped into the room. ‘You didn’t lock your door?’
‘Couldn’t have—ran out in a hurry.’
Ejike looked round the room. It looked neat and smelled good; he wished only there had been more space.
The two brown sofas at the centre nearly took away all the space. The carpet was flower-patterned and its mix of brown, black and white colours blended well with the other components of the room.
The curtains were a mix of teal and brown, and of simple design.
Ejike walked to the picture frame on the table beside him. He stared at the image of two smiling women. ‘You and your daughter?’ he said, picking up the frame.
Rita nodded. ‘Yes.’
Ejike continued to look at the photograph. It was easy to see that the photo was not taken in this room. And not in a photo studio either. It was somewhere else, somewhere that looked like a former home. Somewhere more befitting to the graceful woman beside him.
‘She looks like you.’
Rita produced a small smile. ‘Actually, she took more after her father.’ Rita touched the frame. ‘But the nose is mine.’
Ejike glanced at Rita. ‘Even the lips.’
Rita’s smile widened a bit.
Ejike dropped the photo back in its place. ‘So where is he?’
Ejike quickly realized the question made her uncomfortable. ‘It’s okay, I’m sorry I asked.’
‘Oh no. He is just…just very far away.’
‘Why not sit down, let me get you a bottle of Coke.’
‘No, I’m okay.’
‘Or you can mention whatever else you’d like to have, let me go get it.’
‘Don’t bother yourself.’
‘I am. Thank you.’ He watched Rita pick a cushion on the sofa and turn it to face the right front. ‘I will be leaving now,’ he said. ‘I will come back later to check on you. I am sure by then, she’d have come home.’
‘Thank you.’ Rita found something about his natural confidence admirable—the way he rarely left any room for doubts and uncertainties.
‘Are you from this village,’ she asked him.
‘What do you do for a living?’
Finally, Rita saw a new quality to him. This one question seemed to have wilted something in him.
‘I’m sorry if my question offended you.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘I ran a business which recently just failed.’
‘I’m so sorry about that.’
Ejike nodded. ‘I’m used to it.’
Rita wondered what he meant. ‘What nature of business, if I may ask?’ she asked.
He looked at Rita before he answered: ‘Cosmetics supply.’
‘Again, my sympathy.’
‘You teach at the Girl’s College, don’t you?’
Rita looked somewhat amused. ‘What makes you think that?’
He glanced round the room and finally his gaze settled on the pile of books on the table.
‘Oh,’ Rita said. ‘Those belong to Fiona. I work with Bake-Star up town.’
‘I like their biscuits. Can I get some?’
Rita smiled. ‘Probably if I had been in Production I would have had samples. I am just their account keeper.’
‘What did you study; I can talk to the manager on your behalf and see if there is any vacancy.’
‘I have no certificate.’
‘Yes. But my wife does, I can come with her and see if you can help us.’
‘Your wife? Are you married?’
‘Yes. Since five years now.’
‘Oh wow. You still look very young.’
‘I am 37 years old.’
‘Wow! You can easily pass for under 30.’
‘How old are you?’
Rita recoiled at the question. It might be the way he’d asked it: too unexpectedly. Confidently.
‘Well, I’m quite older than you are.’
Instead of probing her further, Ejike only gave a light smile.
‘You should be getting home to your family now,’ Rita said, ‘I shouldn’t keep you any longer than this.’
‘I don’t have any kids yet.’
Rita wondered why he thought she was referring to kids. She could somehow sense his underlying desire for kids. He obviously is one of those who feel their families are incomplete without kids.
Not knowing what is better to say, Rita said: ‘It’s still a young marriage; kids will come in no time.’
‘You think so?’
‘I know so.’
‘Okay. I will come back later so that we talk more.’
‘Okay. Greet your wife for me.’
Sammy did not talk to Ejike yet when he returned. She only handed him the list of items she’d drawn up. ‘Get me those, I want to make soup.’
Ejike collected the piece of paper from her and skimmed through it. ‘Egusi?’
‘Why not make efo rulo.’
‘Efo riro. I doubt you will see fresh efo leaves at the market.’
‘I will see.’
‘What of iru?’
Ejike said nothing.
‘Just buy the things for egusi. Papa might not like to eat efo after I make it.’
‘He will like it.’
‘Go and get what I wrote!’
Ejike wondered why she appeared so upset. Perhaps it is hunger.
Sammy wondered why Ejike didn’t shout back at her and just folded the paper and walked away. Perhaps it is hunger.
He used Onyemaechi’s motorcycle after he has changed the plug and in a short time he’d returned.
He gave Sammy the bag of items he’d purchased and then walked to his father’s room to check on him.
He helped him outside and lowered him on the mat under the big ogbu tree, beside Uzoma’s goat house. Onyemaechi particularly enjoyed the light breeze that drifted underneath the tree.
Sammy was trying to make the fire when Uzoma returned from her farm.
It was nearing the time of the rains and she had gone to finish up with clearing.
‘Planting early, at the drop of the first rain,’ her friend, Obiageli, told her, ‘is the only true solution to the cocoyam disease from the North.’
‘If you plant early, then by the time the dangerous winds that bring the disease along comes, your cocoyams would have grown their last foliage,’ Obiageli said.
Because Uzoma knew better than to always swallow any story from Obiageli (anybody from Nwanchi generally) hook, line and sinker, she waited till someone else confirmed the effectiveness of this strategy before eventually agreeing to take it on.
So this year, as soon as the first big rain touches the ground, hopefully at the middle of March or early April, Uzoma would plant her cocoyams, and hope for the best.
She halted when she saw Sammy crouched at the fire place. ‘What are you doing?’ she asked her.
Sammy wiped sweat off her face and turned. ‘Trying to make the fire. I want to make soup.’
‘Egusi. Ejike has bought the items.’
Uzoma stared at her. She dropped her hoe and dwarf cutlass and walked toward the fire place.
‘Puta—move aside.’ She bent and rearranged the sticks Sammy had packed under the tripod. ‘What happened to your stove?’
‘The wicks have become very short and there is not enough kerosene.’
In a matter of seconds, Uzoma has gotten the fire up and burning.
‘Thank you,’ Sammy said.
Uzoma looked at her and then walked away.
Again, Sammy wondered why the sudden show of kindness.
Ejike returned to Rita’s house in the evening.
And he stayed up till very late into the night. Till they exhausted discussion topics and now stared silently into the air.
‘I’m scared,’ Rita said.
‘Why?’ Ejike asked.
Rita glanced at the clock. ‘It’s past 9. Where could she be?’
‘Does she have a boyfriend?’
Rita made a face; she found the question ridiculous.
‘Does she?’ Ejike repeated himself.
‘No. No. She is only 19.’
‘How old were you when you first knew a man?’
Rita recoiled. His boldness is not always awesome, after all.
‘Before 10 she will come in, trust me,’ Ejike said, finally.
There were so many other things Rita could have said then, but she decided to push away her doubts and for once buy firmly into his faith.
‘Tell me about your wife,’ she said.
Ejike turned to her. ‘She is fine. She is at home.’
‘No, I mean things about her.’
Ejike stared at Rita.
‘She is Yoruba.’
For many seconds, Ejike said nothing else.
‘Is that all?’ Rita asked.
‘I don’t know what else you’d like to know.’
‘How much do you love her?’
‘I love her.’
‘What are the things about her you find special?’
‘She is a very stubborn woman but I love her.’
Rita smiled, very weakly. ‘What else?’
‘What else should I say?’
‘Are you happy that you married her?’
‘I am happy that she agreed to marry me.’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘She is a graduate, I am not one. I don’t have money but she hasn’t once insulted me over it.’
‘You must find her very angelic, don’t you?’
‘That’s nice. I see you have a happy home.’
Ejike smiled, but obviously not in agreement. ‘We don’t have any kids yet.’
‘You badly want kids?’
‘Yes, but she doesn’t.’
‘Who? You wife?’
Rita swallowed. She spread out the note in her hand and read her daughter’s message once again:
“I’ve gone, Mum. Don’t bother looking for me because you will never find me.”
Rita remembered how only a few years back she had done a similar thing to her husband.
She folded the paper again and turned to Ejike. ‘Why do you want kids?’
‘I am not young anymore. I want to see what my children would look like before I die. Perhaps if I could manage to train them well, they might someday achieve all that I ever dreamed of achieving but couldn’t.’
‘That’s a very wrong reason for having kids, you know that?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘How would you feel when the kids finally arrive and couldn’t achieve these targets you already set out for them?’
Ejike said nothing, just staring at her.
‘Very disappointed, right?’
‘I said I will train them well. I will work very hard and make sure they go to school.’
‘And if they choose not to?’
‘What would you do if your kids don’t go by your rule? Don’t see life the way you see it? Don’t like any of the things you like? What would you do to them then?’
Ejike kept quiet. ‘The same way a man’s life is incomplete without money, a marriage is incomplete without children,’ he finally said.
‘Why do you think a man’s life is incomplete without money?’
‘You are a woman; you can’t possibly understand.’
‘You think women don’t need money?’
‘They do. But they have two options. Men have just one.’
Rita appeared somewhat surprised. Or really just very curious. ‘And what are those?’
‘As a woman, you either make money yourself or marry a man who already has it. Every man must climb the ladder himself.’
‘You think rich women don’t marry poor men?’
‘It doesn’t happen.’
‘There is nothing as ugly as a woman feeding a man. It feels like the reverse of nature.’
‘Well I must tell you that it happens now. Every single day.’
‘You know anyone?’
Rita quickly scoured through her mind. ‘Well, I might not know anyone but that does not mean it is not happening.’
‘Even if it does, it is quite rare. The responsibility of taking care of the family falls on the man. Any man who is so stupid as to allow a woman feed him deserves to be shamed.’
‘I don’t think so. Though I must admit that at least in this part of the world, a good percentage of families are run by men.’
‘It is in the instinct of a man to be the breadwinner. The protector. Not that it brings us any particular joy, but such destinies are not easy to change.’
‘I believe in both members of the family contributing their part in the upkeep of the home. Everyone should help in whichever way he or she can.’
‘I like that. I totally agree.’
Rita stared at him. ‘And I think I should also let you know that everything is not about money.’
Ejike shook his head. ‘No, not true, this one. As far as this world is concerned, money is everything.’
‘Coming from someone who once controlled millions, believe me, dear, when I say to you that that is not entirely true.’
Rita shifted in her seat. ‘Ejike, in this village I have seen people who smile every day, laugh, enjoy themselves, look much happier than I ever was when I was still married and having lots of money.’
‘Money didn’t make you happy?’
‘Money doesn’t make anyone happy, my dear. At any point in time you must feel there is something missing in your life. For you now it is money because you don’t have it yet. But when you finally do, very quickly you will also realise there is something else missing and all your attention will be refocused towards it. Satisfaction in life is an endless struggle. One of my favourite writers once said we are all going to die poor.’
‘Who is the person?’
‘Daniel Nkado. Not so well known but I don’t miss any book by him.’
‘Well, your writer friend doesn’t know what he is saying. There are as much rich people in this world as there are poor people.’
‘Well, according to him, poverty is a lack in something. And really he is quite very correct that in life there is always something we lack.’
Ejike stared at Rita. He stood. ‘I will see you in the morning.’
Rita rose too. ‘You want to leave now? Why?’
Just then someone pushed the door out and entered the room.
Rita’s eyes ran to the clock. It was 10:45.
Sammy waited and waited for her husband to return, but he didn’t.
She came outside and stayed on the veranda for a while.
Then she stood and made her way toward the gate. She opened the small gate a tiny crack and disappeared into the night.