FOR BETTER FOR WORSE
The building was in the middle of nowhere. It stood under a dark moonless sky, aloof and uninviting. There was a high fence, blinding floodlights and a watchtower holding a buff soldier wielding an assault rifle. Igwe looked at Emem and saw her peering at the gate before them with questioning eyes. The Peugeot 504 in front them with his security detail had already driven in and two armed soldiers leaped out and stood guard while Igwe’s own vehicle slowly came to a halt before the entrance of the house.
“Want to join me?” he asked Emem. “I won’t stay long.”
She nodded and both backdoors were opened from outside. Igwe stepped out, waited for her, held her hand and led her through double entrance doors that were thrown open for them. Two soldiers standing in an empty room saluted as he made his way past them towards another room that had a third soldier standing guard outside. The room was actually a library of some sort with rows of books on tall shelves that covered the room wall to wall. The windows were thrown wide open and a smallish man behind large reading glasses was crouched over a wide table reading a voluminous book spread under a reading lamp. He knew Igwe had walked in but paid him no mind as he lifted his pen and proceeded to take notes.
“Take a seat, you and your guest,” he murmured without even a casual glance, “and try not to disturb for the next five minutes. I am about to hit the climax in this chapter.”
Emem knotted her brows and looked at Igwe who just smiled and led her into a fluffy chair in a corner while he sat before the table and waited for the man.
Ten long minutes later, he shut the book with a loud slam, took off his glasses and pulled back his chair to stare at Igwe. “You visit me at such a late hour.”
“Good evening, sir,” replied Igwe.
The man yawned, stretched his hands above his head and looked at Emem.
“Who is she?”
“She is my daughter-in-law,” Igwe said and turned to Emem, “my dear, it is my pleasure to introduce you to my predecessor, President Peter KentoroAbasi. Come and say hello.”
Emem stood up and walked to them, curtsied and stayed beside Igwe who held her hand. “She doesn’t say much.”
“I see,” the other man nodded. “What is your name, young lady?”
“Her name’s Emem.”
There was an uncomfortable silence that followed as President Peter wore on his glasses again and stared at Emem fully.
“My dear, please, give us a few minutes, will you?” Igwe asked warmly and Emem walked out. The soldier outside led her off earshot to some corner where she had privacy to comb through her thoughts.
If the short man inside that room was really President Peter KentoroAbasi, then he was supposed to be in prison as the rumors told. Why was he in this furnished accommodation in the middle of nowhere, not so far from the place where Igwe overthrew him in a peaceful coup d’état just six years ago? Why were both men speaking good-humoredly? Why did Igwe really bring her here?
“Your presence is required.” The soldier at the door walked to her after a long wait and led her back in. The ex-president was now on his feet, leaning on his desk with crossed arms and smiling at her. Her steps slowed when she noticed the smile. She wasn’t sure what it meant. Igwe had a lot of explaining to do later.
“You are a very beautiful, young woman. I heard you have two sons, twins?”
Emem nodded, forcing a smile.
“How are they?”
She nodded again.
“I would love to meet them. Quite handsome, young men, I am told.”
“I hope your husband treats you right? He can be an idiot sometimes.”
Emem blinked uncomfortably, still trying to decipher what the man was all about. Why wasn’t she like Luke who always made sure he kept up with the latest news in the country? He had a room full of old newspapers arranged in chronological order, open to anyone who wanted to research but she had never been in that room and had never picked up a newspaper to read. She had not even, for a lazy, fleeting moment concerned herself with the political tittle-tattle the army housewives always shared at their biweekly tea parties. If she as much as bothered to sit with Luke for the evening news, the television screen stood unnoticed by her as she read her romance novels. It was a shame that she was a member of the first family and didn’t know what the ex-president looked like.
“You were named after your mother, a very beautiful woman, I must say. I knew her a very long time ago and you look exactly like her. I heard she passed away last year?”
“Please, accept my commiserations.”
“We have to be on our way!” Igwe stood. “I would love to stay back and converse but I’m afraid my office offers me no pleasures these days.”
“Sleepless is the head that wears the crown,” President Peter said with a wicked smile and he walked to Emem and gave her a warm handshake with both hands. “Please, pay me a visit sometime. This old man gets really lonely, and you should come with the boys. It has been ages since I heard the excited screams of little children.”
Emem smiled back and nodded.
Later as Igwe’s motorcade drove Emem home, Igwe revealed some things to her. She held tears in her eyes the entire time he spoke, looked away from him and stared out the window. At some point she was convinced she would cry but she was no longer part of the world of people that cried. Something had died inside her and like a zombie, she formed a fresh bond, an alliance with her father-in-law but in her heart she held no loyalty to him.
Saturdays were constantly dull for Emem. Luke had relieved her of all the household chores, preparing her for the new lifestyle he was launching her into. He had enlisted the professional services of an etiquette coach in addition to the load of business management lectures she was to begin in two weeks. She had her own dreams but learnt a long time ago that there was only one king of the castle and she was not sitting on his throne. Judith was. Emem felt it was time to dethrone her and stretching lazily on her bed, staring blankly out the window, her active mind was mapping out a strategy to become her husband’s most valuable plus point.
The cook walked in with breakfast. There was cereal and a glass of orange juice on the tray. There was also a freshly plucked red rose. Emem knew Luke was home. He had been away for three days and was back with an apology. The rose was supposed to express words he would be too proud to say.
She dismissed the cook and her tray away and rolled off the bed. Six years living as an affluent woman and she still had not gotten used to the idea of eating in bed. In her previous life, she always breakfasted in the small, moldy room she shared with her mother. They ate cold fufu every morning with afang soup mildly warmed from the previous night’s smoldering embers. Her mother would chose that particular time of the day to sing a long hymn and pray a long prayer and Emem would wait patiently because she was trained so. The one time she had tried to sneak a finger into the soup during prayer, the old woman had smacked her hand so bad it was swollen for days.
Emem smiled reminiscently; she missed the old woman these days.
She took a long, hot shower, slipped into something clean and sexy and waited for Luke. The moment he walked in, she flew into his arms and he lifted her easily off the floor.
“You refused my breakfast and rose?”
She kissed him fiercely.
“What do you want, Em?” he asked, laughing as he placed her on the bed.
“Igwe took me to see the former president,” she signed and pulled him back to her.
“Repeat what you just old me,” he slightly moved away to see her hand gestures properly.
“We went to see the former president,” she repeated.
“Why?” he asked.
Emem disregarded the question and watched as his face become very serious. “Have you eaten or did your mistress give you breakfast?”
Having put his mind into deep thought, she smiled to herself and walked out to make his breakfast and for the whole day, observed him as he searched her face for answers but pretended she saw nothing.
Later that night, she joined him in bed. As usual, he was lost behind a newspaper but his moving toes indicated he was too restless to concentrate on what he was reading. She took away the paper and looked far into his eyes.
“My father is in prison and will continue to remain there until Igwe says he should be released,” she signed.
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“Igwe told me that the ex-president is my father. He was married to my mother but after six years without children, he left her for another woman. He didn’t know I was on the way.”
Luke wanted to speak but she stopped him, “I know you know about this and that was why you forced yourself on me so that I will have no choice but to marry you. Igwe also said that you and Judith paid my brother to bring me to Lagos.”
“He’s lying, Em,” Luke said gently, stroking her cheek.
She bent her head and sighed, instant tears filling her eyes. “I don’t know why you’re using me like this…”
“Is that what Igwe told you? That I am using you? Didn’t he tell you that the person you believed was your elder brother was actually working for him, collecting money to take care of you and your mother? Why do you think he appeared from nowhere just two years before you came to Lagos? Did you ever ask your mother who he really was?”
“I’m not fighting with you, Luke,” she signed and restlessly scratched her eyebrow.
“Then why are you bringing all this up?”
She ground her teeth. “I thought you loved me. I thought…” her hands fell and she started crying.
“But I do love you, Em. Why are you allowing that man fill you with all these lies?” he pulled her to him but she moved away.
“Why didn’t you tell me who I was?” she asked.
“Would it have mattered? What would it change? Will it change the fact that you he abandoned you into poverty most of your life?”
“Yes! Yes it would have changed everything!”
Luke grunted in exasperation and got off the bed.
“Where are you going? I am talking to you!” she threw a pillow at him.
“Em, don’t start. I am not in the mood for your nonsense this night.”
She threw another pillow and ran to the door to stop him from leaving.
“What is your problem?” he asked calmly.
“No, what is your problem?” she signed. ‘What do you want from me? Why did you marry me?!!”
She hit his chest, pushing him backwards.
“Okay, you want to know? You want to know what I want from you?” he took her hand forcefully and pushed her to the bed. “Sit and listen carefully, because after today, after this night, things are going to change for you but you must not reveal what I tell you to anyone. Understood?”
She looked at him with wide eyes.
She nodded very fast.
“I married you for political reasons, Emem. My family was not always this rich. Igwe was a soldier with three wives. Though high-ranking, he was still struggling to take care of his ever-increasing family because the army makes provision for only one wife and her children. Let’s not forget, too, that the children he had outside with other women compounded his daily problems. I remember once Sam and I had to share a room with Jamila so that Princess and her sons could move into ours. Those were difficult times. Nonetheless, Igwe was a fine soldier, the finest there was in the army and he had friends were it mattered. Having a strong alliance with Westerners was not coincidental; it was in his plan from the beginning. He knew it would pay off one day and pay off it did. Do not be fooled by what you see. Our country is not ruled by us. It never was and never will be as long as you have men like Igwe in power. His carefully masterminded coup was financed and supported by the same people that groomed and trained him outside the shores of Nigeria. Without them, he is nothing.”
Luke put his hands in the pockets of his pajamas and went quiet for a long time. Emem waited patiently and when it seemed he wasn’t going to say any further, she got off the bed.
“Sit. I am not done.”
She obeyed and he continued. “Your father is a man of integrity, a man who worked tirelessly to free not just his people but the whole of black Africa from the bondage of poverty, illiteracy and backwardness. The dreams he had for Nigeria were grand and glorious but his reign was cut short by Igwe.” Luke took a slow, deliberate walk round the room.
“I am grand dreamer, a wishful thinker but it is my desire to bring KentoroAbasi back to power and you are the only one I see facilitating that. Igwe did not just overthrow a president, he overthrew the most powerful man in West Africa and we are going to get that man back into power with your help.”
Luke walked to Emem, stooped before her and took her hands. “I know he abandoned you and I know I used you but it was necessary. I need you to look beyond all that and whatever Igwe told you to ruin the love we share for each other. Put aside all that and work with me. I do not plan to destroy my own father but if he will sell us for a pittance, then he has to be gotten rid of, understood?”
Emem nodded slowly. All that Igwe told her Luke was going to say came pouring out like the words of a book she had read before. The next page, however, came like a twist.
“I know he told you I would say all these things.”
She looked away immediately.
“All the same, we have to make him believe you are on his side.” He got up and walked to his safe. Without hesitation, he unlocked it and pulled out a shoebox. He had a rotten addiction for black shoes and had their whole closet filled with boxes of unused pairs. Once in a while, he would take out a box, discarding the shoes and often she wondered what he did with the box. Now she had an idea. The safe in the wall contained a good number of them.
“I want you to give this to Igwe,” he slammed the box in his hand beside her. “Tell him you found the combination to my safe in my portfolio and you opened it and found this.”
Emem looked at the box labeled ‘Samuel 3’.
“Inside here are recordings of phone conversations I had with Sam concerning what truly happened to Evelyn’s sister. There are also other phone conversations and a certain video footage he will find interesting. Samuel killed that girl, you know? It wasn’t a mistake. He killed her in cold blood because she knew too much about him and was threatening to reveal all.”
Emem gasped and covered her mouth.
“don’t act so shocked. At least not now when you will begin to find out that every member of this family has skeletons in my closet.” Luke laughed and walked back to his safe to lock it. “The box should solidify the relationship you have with your father-in-law and in turn, it will help my cause. In exchange for it,” he turned around, “ask him to release your father. I doubt that he will say no but insist that he does it.”
Emem carefully lifted the lid off the box. There was nothing much to see but two small tapes, a Betamax tape, few photographs and the late woman’s jewelry. She covered the box.
“You’re on my side, right?” Luke asked, his voice having a menacing tone in it. She nodded and he sat beside her. “You have nothing to fear. One day, you and I will rule this country. Not on the throne like the puppets do but behind it. You know, to rule the one that rules is the most powerful place to be.”
And with that, Luke walked into the bathroom, leaving Emem with the strange thoughts in her head. There was a place in her heart these days, some form of shoebox where she kept her impractical feelings, and her love for Luke was going there. Her reasons were he never really had feelings for her and it didn’t matter how much he tried to make her believe otherwise, that first despicable act he performed on her would forever be stamped on her mind. For the past three days she had stayed in bed, brokenhearted, struggling to let him go and it hadn’t been easy but now he had made it awfully clear what she should do.
Slowly, an irreverent excitement grew in her. She was supposed to be anxious but all she felt was pleasure. She had already accepted her present existence and there was no need to be a coward about it. She was now part of the whole picture. It was either she played her role, or got eliminated like Evelyn’s sister. A time will come when she would confront the lies and be the person her mother strictly raised her to be but now, lives were on the wager. This was not a normal marriage or a normal home where children were born and grew up to continue their parents’ legacies. On the contrary, this was beyond even the players themselves. Igwe, Luke, her father, herself, they were all pawns in the game and she didn’t recall seeing anyone playing too close to the heart. She wasn’t ready to take a fall like Patricia and Evelyn. She would be the last woman standing; even Judith had to be eliminated.
“What are you thinking about, Em?” Luke emerged from the bathroom, drying himself with a towel.
Emem shook her head, took the towel and dried him soothingly. She made him a stiff scotch, selected a suitable outfit for the night but when she handed it to him, he laughed and held her.
“Do you know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking that I should stay home tonight and sleep in your arms,” he said.
”I know you will very much like that. So turn off the lights and come and lie beside me.”
She held him while he slept and only closed her eyes at the first light of dawn. When she heard him jump out of bed for his daily jog, she smiled distantly. Everything was still normal. There was no part in her that felt culpable, no guilt for who she was becoming. Maybe this was supposed to be her lot after all. Didn’t her wedding vows say it was for better or worse? For six years she had wallowed in the ‘worse’ but now she was looking forward to the ‘better’. The way she saw it, she was covered; every major character needed her. What was it Igwe told her that night?
My dear, you are in your prime.
Yes, she was in her prime. She smiled again, hugged her pillow and slept the sleep of the young and carefree.
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