She felt sweat run through her scalp and trickle down her neck, irritating her. Fighting the urge to beat down on her head like a carpenter hammering on a nail, she scratched gently. Pulling on the front and tugging at the back of her wig, subtly, readjusting it. Sitting between two overweight passengers in a densely packed bus did nothing to assuage the heat coursing inside her. She pulled out the hospital card from her purse and pushed out of her seat with her shoulders. She stared at the brown paper bearing her name and heaved, fanning herself with it.
Travelling was Nene’s least favourite thing to do. The sweaty smell emanating from the bus full of passengers, plus the sickly smell of grease combined forces to unsettle her intestines, accompanying her already unsettled mind. She chewed harder at her gum, determined to keep her mind and intestine from spilling their contents. The untarred Ebonyi up the road was accentuated by endless potholes that jerked the bus from side to side, and dust flew weightlessly in the air, resting on everything, even eyebrows. Her feet were cramped and her head ached. The blaring radio station reeled out track after track of garbage and some passengers sang along. She wished they would just shut up and let the heat alone torture her. That would never happen, she knew. Tired and hungry, she leaned back, determined to endure the journey.
“That’s my hospital too,” the fat woman by the window said.
“Eh?” Nene replied, startled. The fat woman pointed to her card. “My hospital. That’s where I had all my babies. Very good place.”
Nene tried to fake a smile, annoyed at the intrusion. Maybe she should paste a card that said “no visitors allowed” on her forehead.
“Even the one I’m carrying. I registered there,” the woman continued.
“Wow,” Nene said, almost ending the conversation. Thinking it rude, she asked, “how many do you have?”
The fat woman smiled. The tiny creases on her forehead straightened out and her eyes brightened. She was almost beautiful.
“Two of them. God has blessed me with two angels”. Nene never understood why people enjoyed talking about their children to strangers. “I hope this third one will be a boy. You know how our men are,” she continued, a little bit subdued and Nene pitied her. She had not even noticed the bump. “How many do you have?” she asked. Hatred for the prying woman rose within her.
“This is my first one,” her voice instinctively lowered. You never know who was who.
“Congratulations, nne,” the fat woman enthused, smiling. “I’m sure you will be a wonderful mother.” Nene smiled too, genuinely for the first time since she started the journey. She was beginning to enjoy the conversation. But she knew at once that this woman would hate her if she knew her real motive for the hospital visit.
The fat woman, who identified herself as Ego, dipped her hand into her expensive-looking bag and brought out a flier.
“This man of God is powerful,” she handed the flier to Nene. “Make sure you visit his church before you go into labour. He will pray for you and your husband.”
Nene was smiling again.
“My husband? He is a busy man. Sometimes, I have to beg him to come to church with me. Imagine,” she threw her open palms in the air. The exasperated wife. She did not mention that her father was a reverend and that she had more than enough prayers to last her a lifetime.
“Ewo!” Ego’s hands flew to her mouth, in mock surprise. “My husband too. He deals on women’s accessories, you know.” Nene nodded even though she had no idea. The expensive bag. “The only time you will meet him at home is Sunday morning. Before he will follow me to church eh, I will beg and beg and beg.” They were both laughing loudly, absorbed in the camaraderie and blanket of unity.
It felt too good, voicing out her longings though they were real. The child she wanted, the husband who wanted her. Her make-believe life appealed more to strangers, and even herself. How many strangers will sympathise with a woman sleeping with a married man, pregnant and contemplating an abortion? The camaraderie of this stranger comforted her, yet it left her raw that women existed who had what she longed for without the heartache she had now. In truth, she had a man once or thought she did. She only had him in her bed, and now he was gone. But his seed remained. And here she was, the deacon’s daughter, on her way to clean up the mess.
She smiled sadly. Our men. Our men were surely made with two or more screws missing from their heads. And she was unlucky to meet Ofoedu. A man with all his screws missing.
Deacon’s daughter. That was the identity she grew up with. It was the foundation on which every other thing rested. She could be every other thing, but she was still the deacon’s daughter. It shielded her from lots of things. Yet it robbed her of many more.
That was the identity that held her restraint when she got mad and wanted to fight. The identity that made her go to a Catholic school, to prevent her corruption from wayward kids. The identity that reigned her in when Isaac touched her in teenage curiosity. The identity that prevented her from marrying Ahmed, the Muslim doctor at the General Hospital. Yet it was the identity that gave her the job at the local government headquarters. A job she was unqualified for. It held her like a dog on a leash. The leash would let her move away, explore a little, but it would draw her back home, whether she consented to it or not.
It was in a bid to escape the leash that she began to sleep with Ofoedu. He owned a chemist store in town where he employed two boys to manage. He only visited every fortnight to supervise the work. It was on one of such visits that they met.
Ofoedu was a man who had the airs of one who knew and knew that he knew. They talked about business, politics, education, religion and all. He always had interesting opinions. He spoke of her in his plans. He would leave his wife. He would love to move to the north. He would open a school and she would be the administrator. They would have four children, and he would love them. He filled her with ideas, some so ridiculous. He was not Prince Charming. But she was content with the relationship. She made no demands, feeling that everything would fall in place.
Until one day, she got pregnant. And she told him. He laughed loud and long, his face flush with amusement. He held his sides and managed to ask amidst the laughter if she was carrying twins.
Nene stared at him, unmoving, with no trace of amusement on her face.
Then it dawned on him that it was not a joke. He wore his clothes with such haste that she would have laughed had the circumstances been different.
“I need to think,” he said as he left. She did not see him again until the next day.
“You will not keep it,” he announced, picking up the few belongings he usually left at her place. It was not a question, neither was it a suggestion. He said it with his knowing arrogance. It was the only option, she knew. But she hated that it had to come from him.
“My wife is not gone yet. It will ruin me, and you too. The deacon will be disappointed. You would not do that to him, right?” She only looked on while he spoke, gesturing, nodding, flailing his arms. The picture of desperation. He did not even spend the night at her place. The finality of the end hung in the air, and it made her cold, even as Ofoedu sweated. Her trip to Ebonyi was planned and she left informing no one.
With each bump in a pothole, she prayed that something would happen. A miracle. A recourse to her pain. But nothing happened. The private hospital was beautiful on the outside. A red and white ambulance bearing the hospital’s name was packed in the small garage close to the fence. Going through the motions tired her, getting a card and answering endless questions from an elderly nurse. The smell of medicine and sickness overwhelmed her senses, leaving her nauseated. The first signs.
In the doctor’s office, a bald bespectacled man motioned for her to sit. He counselled her. He scheduled an appointment. His fee was not cheap, but she could afford it. Ofoedu could rot in hell. She headed home, the brown card with the date of her appointment written boldly on it.
Sitting next to Ego birthed a longing that even Ofoedu in her bed did not fulfil.
As the car trudged along the dusty road, the dread since her discovery of the pregnancy, her resentment at Ofoedu’s desertion, seeped out of her pores, leaving her with a certain calm that she could not explain. She was thirty, comfortable and unmarried. What did she need an abortion for? Her anger melted, giving way for joy, and content and hope at her core, a mass of life, a baby growing within her. Warmth spread on her face as she thought out baby names. Happiness. Hope. Gift. She could not wait to tell her parents. They would be disappointed, but she would have the baby. She had survived being the deacon’s daughter for thirty years. Surely, their egos would survive a little bruise from her. Her neighbours would wonder, a few bold ones would tell her off, but she would have the baby. People would mock, others would point fingers, and some would shake their heads in disdain for the hypocrite she was, but she would have her baby.
Proudly, she would wear her shame, comforted by the kicks and cravings and swollen feet and frequent trips to the hospital. She would not hide her folly. She could not wait to disappoint Ofoedu. She would enjoy his misery. She would laugh at his spineless threats. She would spit at his condescension. Shopping for baby clothes with her mother would be tiring but fulfilling. Soon, she too would eagerly tell strangers about her baby. She was sure she would exude satisfaction. She closed her eyes, restraining herself from laughing in ecstasy. Now she understood why life did not serve everyone a full plate of happiness at once. They would run mad. Like she was about to run mad with joy.
Ego woke up.
Nene smiled. She wondered if the wrinkles on her face straightened out too, or if she looked flawless in her euphoria. “I have thought out a name.” She did not mind that Ego looked puzzled or that other passengers could hear her.
“Happiness. I will name my baby Happiness,” she made the grand announcement.
Ego smiled. “Beautiful name. I like it,” she paused, “but your husband, would he not mind?” She looked concerned.
Nene laughed and scratched her wig again. “My husband would not mind at all.”
For the first time since she met Ofoedu, the word ‘husband’ did not conjure up his bushy eyebrows and empty knowledge.
Ego was still talking, but Nene had stopped listening.
She scratched her wig again and resisted the urge to take it off. People would wonder and pity her non-existent husband for being so unfortunate to be saddled with a pregnant and crazy woman as a wife.
Ego was still talking as evening fell. The mini-bus trotted along the dusty path. She would highlight soon, her make-believe life, fully hers.