FOR BETTER, FOR WORSE
The Presidential Villa was grand. It was nothing Emem had ever seen before. To her, it seemed everything in it was made of gold. The armed soldier that led her in had already walked her through a reception almost as large as her mother’s compound in the village and now he was leading her through a long hallway that boasted of expensive portraits of erstwhile presidents of Nigeria. She felt like Maria in Sound of Music the first time she entered the Von Trapp’s home, the only difference was that house was a joke compared to this.
They came out to another room with long drapes that caressed the glass-like floor beneath her; shimmering chandeliers hanging off the ceiling were like yellow diamonds; and expensive chaise lounges beckoned to Emem to feel them.
However, it wasn’t the room that intimidated her, it was the people in it. There were four women hurdled in a corner, talking in low tones, holding glasses of wine that seemed to adorn their long, painted nails. They had all turned toward her as she entered. She had the urge to hide behind the soldier she came with but he had disappeared. Emem wished the floor beneath her would drag her in or some wall from nowhere would fall between herself and them but nothing happened. Their eyes pierced her like icicles and she knew instantly that she would never fit into their world. These women were older than her, educated, wealthy beyond reasoning, sophisticated, wearing trousers and drinking wine! She had never worn men’s clothing before or tasted wine! Not even when she was working at Charybdis Hotel. She was just a village girl who had struggled to make it past grammar school and was brought into Lagos by her brother to earn a living. She was poor, barely eighteen, naive and mute. The only thing she had over them was her beauty. So she stood there like an image of celestial magnificence, God’s masterpiece. Her complexion was very light, skin like porcelain, long hair that was full in the day’s afro style; and finally her lips, the rosiest anyone had ever seen. What Emem didn’t know was that the women were looking at her with full envy, none of them had ever come across such beauty in a while.
“Come here!” one of them, a tall woman that was obviously bleaching (not that anyone knew then), called to her but before Emem could move her legs, she heard one of them say: “she can’t hear you. I heard she’s deaf and dumb.”
So Emem stayed put. It was better they didn’t know she could hear them. She didn’t want to communicate with them in any way.
The bleached woman beckoned her over again with her gold clad hand and Emem ambled forward timidly.
“Captain said he hired an interpreter for her. Where is the person?” someone said.
“I know sign language,” a fat one told them. “I hope she understands me.”
They offered her a seat and surrounded her with probing eyes. The fat one began signing as she spoke, “what is your name?”
Emem spelled with her fingers. “E-M-E-M”
“Emem!” the woman announced to them as if it was supposed to be shocking news. She turned back to her. “My name is Jamila and I am your fiancé’s twin sister. This is Princess, the president’s wife, the First Lady. You can call her Princess…” she added and laughed. “Who am I kidding? The kid can’t speak.”
They all laughed.
“I’m glad she can’t” Princess rubbed her bleached eyelid and said in her thick Oxford accent, “I can’t imagine my name on her lips.”
“This here is Evelyn, she is the wife to your fiancé’s younger brother, Doctor Samuel.”
Evelyn looked friendly as she smiled at Emem warmly. “Welcome to the family.”
“don’t do that!” Princess snapped at her. “For all we know, the pregnancy could belong to someone else!”
“Well, we’ll know when the baby is born, won’t we? If it has the famous Igwe eyes…”
“Oh, shut up, Evelyn,” Princess cut her off and Evelyn turned to her glass of wine.
“And this is Judith, a good friend and also part of the family,” Jamila signed.
“Ask her how many months the pregnancy is,” Evelyn told Jamila.
“How many months-your pregnancy?” Jamila signed.
“Eight months,” Emem signed back.
“Already?!” Jamila exclaimed.
“It’s unbelievable!” Evelyn gasped. “She looks like she’s just five months!”
“I heard the village girls take things that make their babies small for easy birth. I hope this one doesn’t give birth to a lizard. She looks like one,” Princess commented.
“She can hear you,” said Judith and they all focused on Emem.
“You’re lying,” Evelyn said.
“You can hear us, can’t you, Emem?” Judith asked.
Emem wanted to the floor to cave in again. Why did this mean woman have to expose her this way? Before she got the chance to respond, another woman entered the room and they all turned to her. She was dressed very conservatively and carried about her a gloomy but arrogant air. None of them said a word to her and she ignored them also but walked to Emem.
“You’re the new girl?” she looked down on her like she was filth and didn’t wait for an answer. “Welcome to hell, and yes, it is paved with gold but its vultures feast on carcasses. Try not to be a carcass.”
She walked to some corner in the room and sat down staring at the air around her vacantly.
“Ignore her, Emem, that one is crazy,” said Jamila.
Later on, Emem would find out that the crazy one was called Patricia and she was Doctor Samuel’s first wife and was presently under medication for a certain mental illness.
Dinner was to be served in an hour but Emem was escorted to some private quarters to see the president, her soon-to-be father-in-law. She was told how to behave in his presence, never to look into his eyes when he spoke, never to laugh openly at his jokes but to respond with a smile and to always keep an upright posture even if her back broke.
She was led to a cold room and left alone. With each passing second she was becoming apprehensive and wanted so much to use the restroom but a soldier halted her plans when he appeared from a door, laughing with someone who was coming behind him. It was none other than the President of Nigeria, Igwe Refuge Nwosu. Emem immediately struggled up and waited till the soldier was dismissed. She felt a slight tightening in her womb like all the other ones she had felt in the last few hours. They were becoming painful but she held on and told herself they were false like the doctor had told her they would be. Igwe walked to her and stood so close, bending his head to look into her lowered face and then he burst out laughing.
“Good gracious! She’s a child!” he took her hand. “Sit down, my dear.”
Emem sat and as much as she tried to look away from his eyes, she couldn’t. They held hers in their glassy stare. Nobody told her the man was this handsome. Just forty-seven years old, he was only seventeen years older than the captain, his first son. There were no grey hairs or signs of aging. Igwe was still in his prime.
“I really must apologize for not seeing you all this time. I have been very busy. It is not easy to run a country, you know, but with God’s help I try my best. So!” he rubbed his hands together, “I need you to tell me all about yourself because I have a feeling you and I would be very good friends.”
Emem tried her best with lay sign language to share her life with him and they conversed for a full hour before dinner with intermittent visits from her to the restroom. During dinner, at the table, to everyone’s envy, he concentrated solely on her. A good number of the family members were there—the wives, the children, their wives, the grandchildren, the mistresses, children of the mistresses, their wives and husbands—all thirty-two of them. Emem had never received such a reception in her life. They told her to feel happy to be part of the family, that she was very lucky to hold the post of the first son’s wife, that she would live a fulfilled and luxurious life, that she would become famous and the whole of Nigeria will fall for her…
They told her many more things to make her feel at home even if most of them were not from the heart. The whole time they spoke, Emem’s eyes were glued Captain who was seated beside Judith. In the beginning, she had hated him upon discovering she was pregnant but as she began to live with him and got to know him, she gradually fell for him. He was a charmer and treated her with uttermost respect, lavishing his time and resources on her and for a while she forgot that he had, just eight months ago, mercilessly raped her in his hotel room.
The tightness in her womb hit her again and she cringed slightly. She longed to go home and lie down beside her Luke, her Captain, the man who had turned her into a woman overnight.
“Are you okay?” Igwe asked with a warm smile and she nodded.
Emem reached for her glass of water and smiled at Luke who was sitting across her. He smiled back and her heart missed a beat, causing her hand to slip, sending her fork clattering to the floor. It was difficult bending to pick it with her protruding belly but she hurried to the floor before anyone could help her and as she retrieved the cutlery, her eyes caught Captain’s hand up Judith’s skirt beneath the table. Immediately, she rose up and locked eyes with him. He seemed unfazed and so was Judith. Emem couldn’t believe her eyes. Wasn’t it he who got back home last night from a peace-keeping mission after two long months and sat her down to explain how something he saw at the frontlines had moved him to penitence? Wasn’t it he who apologized for what he had done to her and said he cherished her and would dedicate his entire existence to her and their baby? The words had flowed so easily. How could he have been lying? How could he do this to her?
Igwe and someone else started scolding her for bending down in her condition but she wasn’t listening. Her eyes were still locked in Luke’s because his hand yet remained where she had found them. Tears stung her eyes as she blindly sat. Luke had broken something in her. And it wasn’t just her heart… it was her water also. Princess, beside her screamed shrilly as the amniotic fluid touched her feet. “Your bastard is coming!” she threw a spoon at Luke, “get off your seat!”
The whole table went into chaos and Emem felt hands around her, some pulling her up, trying to carry her away but her eyes were still glued to Luke’s. He was now standing and so was his partner in sin. As she was carted away, Emem saw Judith pull Luke in the opposite direction and that was all she remembered. Somewhere halfway to the villa’s clinic, she fainted.
To be continued…