“Jean-Marie de Valmont, the famous French filmmaker, was filming the final episode of a documentary series on Nigerian cuisine when militiamen took him hostage,” read the opening lines of an article published in The Observer.
Similar opening lines were in Vanity Fair, The Guardian, and countless French magazines.
Miss Winifred Adaeze Uba, his mistress and scriptwriter, sat in her living room in Victoria Island. She was watching a pack of videos. On her lap was a copy of Conde Nast Traveler in which de Valmont had written about his top five film industries in Africa.
Winifred refused to talk to journalists about his abduction. She wanted to be left alone in her air-conditioned living room, drinking coffee, reading glossy magazines, and watching some of de Valmont’s documentary films or some of the raw video clips on her Kodak video camera.
The media in Nigeria and outside was awash with frenzy about the whereabouts of the French filmmaker.
The Nigerian government had been held responsible for the growing insecurity in the country while the French embassy had been blamed for letting Valmont work in a region plagued with incessant gun battles and abductions of European expatriates.
Jean-Marie de Valmont was a man who worked hard and played harder perhaps.
Winifred knew more than anyone else how hard he played—the pleasure trips across continents they’d embarked on, the many safaris at the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya, the courses of weird cuisine and orgies on the most expensive wines in South Africa, the wasteful trips to the Gambia just to smell the air of Banjul, not to mention the many nights of lovemaking in hotel rooms at the Obudu Cattle Ranch in Nigeria.
Now he had been abducted. He had not been filming the last episode of the documentary on Nigerian cuisine. The newspapers and magazines of the world had all got it wrong.
The armed militia men had actually broken into a cheap hotel in Oguta where de Valmont and Winifred were having sex, sprayed bullets here and there, scared the surrounding villagers and taken him hostage.
Why the men left her unhurt, she could not understand. But they had collected a few items belonging to de Valmont, such as his 24-carat gold Rolex watch and his private camcorder. Then she fled Oguta, taking refuge in a private residence in Victoria Island.
She had glibly answered her way past the Nigerian police and the hoards of investigative journalists from the Nigerian, British and French media. One CNN correspondent had been bogging her on her mobile phone with requests for “a brief interview”.
“Goddamn correspondents!” Winifred spat, exasperated. “They never ask for long interviews, but once granted the ingrates would keep at it–digging into their mother’s cunt!” She could not bear the desperate greed of journalists. Journalists were hell.
Nobody knew if Jean-Marie was alive or dead. His abductors had kept silent for weeks on end. All contacts made by the French Embassy with noted militia groups in the country came to the same result: none claimed responsibility for the Frenchman’s abduction.
No one could tell the motive of his kidnappers. Was it a protest against the presence of white expatriates in the country? Was it a retaliatory action by a religious militia against the recent occupation of Mali by foreign troops, of which the French contingent was a key part? Was it a protest against the West and its education? Was it just an act of mindless wickedness for which there was no justification? No one could tell.
She picked up her Kodak video camera and hit play. The round head of Jean-Marie de Valmont filled the screen of the camcorder. It was a very round head, like a ball, bald, with a curved nose, and no chin.
He had a thick black brush of moustache that concealed his upper lip. When Winifred began to get intimate with him, she had complained about the moustache. She detested the way the hair felt in her mouth when she kissed him.
But far into her affairs with him, she began to like the essential blackness of it and the rough brushy feeling it brought to her face.
Jean-Marie de Valmont smiled before a moving camcorder handled by Winifred. This video was shot at the Oguta Lake a few days before Jean-Marie was abducted. There was a backdrop of local fishermen and women in canoes and speedboats crisscrossing the lake.
The locals had become excited about this white presence with a curious moustache, dressed in a carelessly buttoned shirt and brown shorts and flip flops.
He seemed at ease with the air here. Little boys huddled round him, clinging to his shirt and shorts, feeling his flabby white body while he smiled as if this was what heaven was meant to be.
“Ma cherie, this feels like heaven,” Jean-Marie said, laughing.
“I can see that you are having fun already, Jean-Marie,” Winnie’s voice said.
“We could do a documentary of this beautiful place!”
“You sound as if it were the Eiffel Tower here.”
“What makes a place special is err… the spirit of it, ma cherie, and err… that is what brings the deja vu feeling,” he said. “Look at the beautiful lake, the happy villagers the err… the green trees and vegetation… Awesome place, ma cherie!”
Then pulled out a green wallet, slipped out a one thousand naira note and gave the children, who trebled their celebration around him.
He danced as they sang a native song in praise of him, it seemed.
“Let’s do a documentary on the lake,” Jean-Marie said, obviously joking.
“No documentary, Jean-Marie,” Winifred’s voice whined. “It’s about us today, nothing more.”
“Okay, no documentaries today, cherie, I agree. “But when are we err… beginning work on the documentary on cuisine?”
“I don’t know,” the voice said again, chuckling. “And I think you should stop telling her about the cuisine documentary.”
“Antoinette? Hahaha. She needs to know that I am busy, otherwise she might err… think I’m up to something err… dirty, hahaha. She is err… terrible when err… jealous.”
“I wonder what will happen when she finds out that there is no cuisine documentary at all.”
“Well, well, we err… we can always cook up something for Antoinette–say the villagers were not err… cooperative…”
“But you’ve been telling her that the filming has begun.”
“Oui. Yeah, but err… I can always err… make it up to her, you know.”
Just then a speedboat nosed to the edge of the lake, where Jean-Marie and the children were.
“I am ready, white man,” the speedboat man said, smiling. His body was as black as burnt wood, and it glistened with sweat.
“Let me touch camera,” one of the children said sharply. “Let me touch photo camera!”
“Smart one,” said Jean-Marie. “Let him touch the camcorder, cherie.”
“They’ll ruin my film,” Winifred’s voice said.
Blurred images filled the screen of the camcorder, and then brown fingers flashed hither and thither amid loud cackles of children.
“Alright, alright, children, we’ve got to go,” Winifred’s voice said, and then images shook and became blurred, and then darkness.
The next clip was of Winifred sitting in the speedboat, surrounded by the children, and the speedboat man was at one end of the boat where the motor of the boat was situated.
A splendid jewel with the design of a dragonfly encircled her neck, giving her a rather exotic and dignified look. Jean-Marie was heard but not seen because he held the camcorder.
They had reached the curious confluence where the lake Ogbuide and the River Urashi met. Ogbuide looked slightly greenish while Urashi was murky brown. The two waters never mixed.
“Amazing!” Jean-Marie’s voice said.
“It is like a mystery,” Winifred said. “There is a legend about the two river goddesses being at loggerheads with each other, and that explains why the two waters don’t mix.”
The next video clip was of a golf course and de Valmont was exchanging pleasantries with two white expatriates wearing white caps and holding golf clubs.
Then there was a brief flash of de Valmont and his new friends in a bar, carousing.
The clip that followed was one of lovemaking. Winifred used to wonder what this freak of a man liked about having his sexual encounters recorded on tape, but she had recently discovered the profligate fun in it.
The video shows Jean-Marie de Valmont slamming his blubbery torso upon her, yelling out “La deese africaine!” and amplifying his thrusts as she moaned, urging him to not stop while readjusting the splendid dragonfly necklace that glittered on her coffee-colored body.
What did “La deese africaine” mean? She had asked him the question after their first night of lovemaking and his confession was: “When I make love to you, I see err… all the beautiful masks of Africa converged in you. I see err… an African goddess at whose feet a thousand gendarmes fall and die.”
Then she had begged him not to call her that name. But like all the things about Jean-Marie de Valmont, she would get used to it; and then it became like an ornament for sex, a fetish or lingerie, and sex would not be sex without “La deese africaine!”
The room filled with the animal cries of the two lovers. Winifred felt a fierce urge to smash the camcorder. Jean-Marie had ordered it for her during a trip to the Cannes Film Festival.
She grabbed the golfer figurine instead and was going to smash this special gift from Cannes when her land line rang. The shrill cry of the telephone left her stunned.
The telephone was almost defunct. It was hardly ever used. Thanks to mobile phones, the ebony contraption sat on a stool, clothed in a film of dust, like a historical artifact.
Could it be Jean-Marie?
Or could it be his wife, Antoinette?
How stupid would he be to give his give wife his mistress’s phone number?
Her heart pounded so loudly that she could hear it. The phone rang and stopped. She stood transfixed, golfer figurine in her hand.
Could it be de Valmont’s abductors…those bloody terrorists? What would they be demanding from her? A ransom with a blow-by-blow manual on how it must be delivered, who must deliver it, where it must be delivered and the precise time it must be delivered?
Sweat broke out on her face. It seemed her air conditioner had just broken down on account of the phone call.
If the phone rang again, she thought to herself, she’d take it. If it’s the abductors, she would tell them it was a wrong number. She could even advise them to call the French Embassy. She prayed the phone would not ring again.
But it did. Winifred had not summoned enough composure to handle the receiver before it stopped ringing. It rang a third time, and she spasmodically blundered towards the telephone and snatched the receiver.
She couldn’t bring herself to say hello.
A few seconds passed and all she heard was her loud breathing amplified on the mouthpiece.
“Hallo,” a formidable female voice said. “Hallo…Hallo… Hallo…”
“O my God!” Winifred heard herself muttering. “It is her!”
She held the receiver away from her head, took a deep breath, fanned her face with her other hand, and then resolved to answer the caller.
“Hallo,” the voice said again.
“Hello,” Winifred answered.
“My name is Madame Antoinette de Valmont, wife of the French national held hostage in Nigeria,” she said. “Is it Winifred Adaeze Uba that I am speaking with?”
“Yes… eh… I mean no,” Winifred blundered.
“Which am I to take?” asked Madame de Valmont. “Yes or no?”
“Do you know where she has gone to?”
“I was told that this is her telephone line. Is she coming back today?”
“I do not know, Madame.”
“Don’t you have any idea how I can reach her?”
“No, Madame. Any message for her?”
“Yes. I want my treasured jewelry back from her.”
“Did you say jewelry, Madame?”
“Yes, I saw my necklace on her in the video released by my husband’s abductors.”
“Yes, it is on You-tube now,” she said in a heavy, near-weeping voice. “The terrorists put the nasty video on the internet. Everybody can now watch my beloved husband having sex with a whore wearing my necklace. It is so shameful…”
Dazed, Winifred again held the receiver away from her ear. Her left fingers fumbled around her neck, tugging fiercely at the wondrous necklace.
Madame de Valmont went on and on about the dragonfly necklace being one of her treasured gifts, about her dream of wearing the necklace on her fiftieth wedding anniversary, about her love for Jean-Marie and his commitment to documentaries.
Winifred didn’t hear all that. But when she regained composure and put the receiver back on her ear, she heard Madame de Valmont saying:
“…So please when the whore comes back tell her that Madame Antoinette de Valmont wants her necklace back. Very important! Thank you.”
Winifred wanted to say something, but Madame de Valmont had hung up.
For a long while she stood by the dust-coated telephone, struggling with the gorgeous dragonfly necklace as if it were an enemy, forgetting how to unlock it, injuring her neck in the mad effort.
When she regained her composure, she remembered the first day she saw Jean-Marie de Valmont, the day he addressed the Actors Guild of Nigeria and had said in a funny French accent, “Hallo, everybody. My name is err… Jean-Marie de Valmont err… I am a French filmmaker, and err… I want to talk to you about making documentaries.”
Post image by Kwesi Abbensetts. Click HERE to check out more of his work.
About the Author:
Nnamdi Oguike was born in the Nigerian city of Owerri. He grew up in parsonages where storytelling, music, and poetry formed an integral part of culture. He began writing seriously in 1999 and his work has appeared in The Dalhousie Review and on africanwriter.com.