With Robert By Chielo Eze
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A Date With Robert
By Chielo Eze
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Whenever I mopped the floor of our three-bedroom house and Remi, my elder brother, helped me, we danced to Fleetwood Mac’s song, Don’t Stop. I began to love the song after watching the inauguration of Bill Clinton as the 42nd American president. The dancing began one day when I was cleaning the floor while my cassette recorder boomed in the background. I suddenly responded to the song by nodding to its rhythm. Remi, who was standing beside the entrance to the parlor, imitated my movements. Further inspired by his unfiltered joy, I stood up, twisted my body, and snapped my fingers. He followed by flinging his hands and legs in all directions, faintly reminding me of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Since then, Remi yearned for the moment of floor mopping.
For the first time in December, the fierce harmattan wind calmed. I didn’t think the wind would return before Christmas, which was a week and half away. I decided to do the ultimate mopping, after which I’d do only minor cleaning two days to the feast. I had already dusted the curtains, windows and chairs, and when Remi saw me putting disinfectant and detergent in our yellow plastic bucket, he came to me, took the bucket from me, and ran to the tap outside to fill it with water. We began to mop the floor. Fleetwood Mac played. When the treasured song came, Remi stood up, turned to me, and we danced. The song was about to end when I looked out the window. A plump-cheeked twelve year old boy in khaki shorts wheeled a bicycle into our compound. At the same time, my mother was coming out from the backyard whistling one of her favorite Christian songs.
"Mama-Remi," the boy called. "Robert told me to tell Chinwe not to forget this evening."
"Robert? Who is Robert?"
"Robert Ene. Don’t you know Robert who came back from Jamani?"- Germany. I smiled.
"The son of professor. He told me to remind Chinwe..."
"Okay, okay, she’s cleaning the house. Don’t mind, I’ll tell her, eh?"
"Tell him that she said she’s coming, eh?" my mother said as the boy turned to go.
"Yes, ma," he said and sped off.
I could detect happiness in my mother’s tone. I hadn’t wanted her to get wind of my date with Robert. I didn’t want to raise unfounded hope. Since my 23rd birthday a few months ago, she never stopped reminding me of marriage. I was getting old in her opinion. "Professor Ene!" she whispered aloud, pouring her unbelieving, radiant dark brown eyes on mine.
Since the doctors had confirmed that Remi had an irreversible chromosomal disorder resulting in mental retardation and abnormal bodily development, a condition otherwise known as Down Syndrome, my mother had few reasons to smile. Getting married to Robert, I knew, could put some smiles on her face. It would be a great event for our family, and for my mother it would blight the joy of her enemies, who, she was sure, sniggered at her back – mother of a mongoloid. She would be a mother in-law to Robert, the son of professor Ene, a mother in-law of somebody who lived in Germany.
Robert and I had known for a while. Casually, though. He left for Germany shortly after his graduation from the law school of the University of Nigeria. For three years not much was heard from him. He came back two weeks ago and sought me out on the campus to follow up with the three letters he had written me a few months before his return. We didn’t spend much time together, for I had to rush to the Teaching Hospital.
Alice, Robert’s mother, handed me a note, and without waiting for me to unfold the paper apologized on behalf of her son. "Robert went for a meeting, he’ll soon be back, please wait for him," she pleaded and showed me the way to the upper floor of their one-story building.
His village age group had a very important meeting and his presence was highly needed, she explained, leading me into their large luxury parlor. Two central fans whirled. One of them trailed a long whistling sound. "Take a seat, my dear," Alice said and showed me one of the sofas by the right side of the parlor. She turned on the central light, two bright fluorescent tubes.
There were more than nine sofas, all having the same cherry red color of fine silk. The rug had the same color and it ran the length of the sitting room. Sinking into the sofa by my left, she inquired how I was doing. A whiff of sweet perfume trailed her. She asked about my mother and about Remi.
"Remi is doing fine," I said. "We both had just mopped our house."
"Truly?" she exclaimed. "That is good."
Merely asking about Remi brought me closer to her. But for her short nose, I thought she had a perfect face: glowingly dark, well-defined lips that often yielded innocent, effortless smile.
Professor Joachim Ene walked into the sitting room from the long corridor by the left hand side. He adjusted his loincloth tied around his waist. His white sleeveless singlet rested upon the knot of the cloth. A small potbelly. "Hello," he bellowed.
I walked up to him for a handshake. And what a bone-crushing handshake it was. Alice excused herself and went downstairs while the professor walked to his sofa by the entrance to the corridor from where he had come out. "Ah," he sighed. "Robert went for a very important meeting. He’ll soon be here." He glanced at his left wrist which had no watch. "In less than an hour."
"It’s all right," I said.
Robert had explained in his note that he merely wanted to register his presence there. He didn’t want to lose contact with his age group. His three years in Germany had made him realize how important it was to maintain contact with his roots.
"Have you been given something to drink?" the professor asked. "You surely care for a drink. Don’t you?"
"No, sir, no thank you. I don’t want to drink." I was trying to be courteous.
"You really don’t want anything?" he said and coughed, taking a brown handkerchief to collect his phlegm.
"Coca-Cola? Ah, Robert is a very hardworking boy," he had gone on without noticing whether I really wanted to take Coca-Cola. "His age-group has missed him all the while and they want to get the best out of him before he goes back to Germany."
"He’s going back to Germany?" I asked.
He didn’t answer. He raised his voice and called Benita – their maid, I guessed since he had two children, sons. When no one answered his call, he reached his right hand beside the doorframe and pressed a button. "The young men of the town are planning a constitution and they need Robert’s help," he said, placing his heavy hands sovereign on the arms of the sofa. "Ah, what did he not do for them before he left for Germany?"
His account didn’t quite agree with Robert’s, I observed. It was Robert who needed his age group and not the other way round. "Hopefully they’ll remember to be grateful to him," I said.
"Yes, my dear, you know it well. People have already forgotten all I did for them during the war."
"I don’t think people have forgotten," I said. "My mother talks about you with great respect and gratitude."
He smiled, exposing smoke-colored teeth. "You come from a very good family. A God-fearing family."
Benita, a plump fair woman in her late twenties, came up carrying a gold-rimmed platter that had a cold big bottle of Guinness Stout, and a bottle of Coca-Cola, two glasses and side-plates containing chin-chin and peanuts. She put the bottle of Coca-Cola, a glass and a plate of chin-chin by my side-table and then pounded her way to the professor. Her red, cheap cotton to-the-ankle skirt swished noisily as her thighs rubbed painfully against each other.
"I thought Mama-Robert was coming," I said.
The professor looked up. "Where is Mama-Robert?"
"She is talking with a neighbor downstairs," Benita answered.
I poured my Coca-Cola, and waited till he took up his glass. We toasted. I was surprised by the show of friendship. Few positive things have been said about him. It was rumored that he loaned people large sums of money with very high interest. And when they could no longer repay, they gave up some acres of their land preferably the ones bordering on his. That didn’t worry me anyway. More pertinent to me at the time was his extreme class-consciousness, and since I came from a working class family – my father being a coal-miner, and my mother a housewife, both illiterates – I hadn’t expected much warmth. If ever anything had a whiff of glory in our family it was my being a medical student. I’d most likely belong to the upper middle class in the nearest future.
"Robert is a very hardworking man," I said, in a desperate search for a common topic.
"Oh yes, my dear," he said, having downed a mouthful of Guinness. He wiped his lips with the back of his left hand. He belched, putting his left hand to his mouth.
I heard some steps coming up the stairs and I thought Robert had come home. But it wasn’t Robert. It was his mother.
"Woman," the professor called. "Join us, get yourself something." And hardly had she sat down when Benita came up again with another platter: a bottle of Coca-Cola, chin-chin and peanuts. Alice was served as we had been.
"I was in the forefront of the anti-colonial movement," the professor said, probably trying to trace his son’s sense of duty to some genetic code. "Without us we’d never have gained Independence."
Alice creased her lips as our eyes met, perhaps, in an attempt to suppress a smile.
"Yes, most people are ingrates," I said. "They receive but they aren’t ready to give."
"That’s the world we live in, my dear," he said and took up his glass for another swig, after which he rose from his sofa, and walked back into the corridor. The beaded curtain at the entrance to his corridor jingled.
As soon as his back disappeared behind the frame Alice closed her eyes and shook her head, then puffed demonstratively, flinging her hands as if she was shooing some flies. "Ah, don’t mind him," she murmured silently.
I hurled some chin-chin and peanuts in my mouth, with a faint smile to demonstrate my understanding of the situation. I was beginning to like her. It was also my first time being so near to her. I felt it an honor sitting beside a woman whose beauty many village women had talked about and whom we, as young girls, had admired from the distance. I could remember a few times the family driving past our village’s pond, while we waited for our turn to fetch water. The professor had his hand out of the window of their Mercedes convertible, while she sat in the front seat, her white headscarf fluffing in the air. Joachim Jr. and Robert, in their preteens, sat behind, staring at us barefooted village people. The professor honked and small children yelled in response and waved. "Professorrrrrrr!" We all wished to be in their position at least once. You were good if you were better than the others, and they knew it.
Joachim was the embodiment of intellectual prowess simply because he was the first person to become a university professor in our town. His status was unattainable. His importance was underlined by the role he played in the struggle for African liberation. He single-handedly fought the white colonial masters according to one of the songs by the women of our town. He was given the same respect that history reserved for mosquitoes, which, we learned, helped keep the predatory white people from our soil. If a single mosquito bit a white person, one of our primary school teachers said, he would die of malaria within days. Blessed be mosquitoes. And blessed be professor Ene. The truth, however, was that he came back from his overseas studies during the struggle for independence and consequently participated in the first national election that took place immediately after independence.
The professor came back, carrying three fat green laminated photo albums. He stood a few inches from the door threshold, I guessed weighing whether he should ask me to come over to his side or whether he should come around and take the sofa by my right so that I’d sit between him and Alice. In the end, he made the later decision, and Alice brought his drink and snacks over to his new position. Hardly sitting, he placed the first album on his lap. Alice sneaked a peek at me and smiled. I could imagine that this ritual of album showing was no longer new to her. He took a handful of peanuts. "Yes, Eton," he said, and opened the album.
I wondered what he had in mind. "Eton?" I asked. I hadn’t heard that name before.
"Great Britain. That’s where I went to college before going to Cambridge," he revealed. "I was about the only black person there in my time. I believe the streets of Eton now teem with many blacks."
Does it matter? I thought and stared at a point on the floor for a while, not wanting to meet his eyes.
"I was among the pioneer Africans there."
"Excellent," I said and pinched myself, not knowing what his utterance and my appraisal should mean. Flattered by my compliment he went on showing me the highlights of his wonderful time at Eton. He was the best student of Economics in his time, he explained, the best student organizer. I kept silent and wished he moved to a different topic. I would have been happier if he had asked how I was getting along with my studies. Even my illiterate father and a few village people often asked me about my medicine studies; whether AIDS was real or just an American scam or whether cloning human beings would ever be successful. No, the professor wouldn’t ask; he only damned the country and the military. "It was the military that put us in this nonsense," he said.
He was about to open the next album when Robert returned. We greeted. He was much like his mother, lanky, ebony black with intelligent eyes. A handsome man, who loved to smile – he had beautiful teeth. He was pleased to see me, I could tell it from his eyes. We shook hands, and he apologized for being one hour late. He excused himself, explaining that he had to take a quick shower, and then disappeared through the other corridor facing his parents’.
I wished he had urged me to go with him, wait for him anywhere but in his parent’s parlor. His father picked up the next album. I thought it would be yet another epoch, another great event in his life; his experience of the Biafran war, for example. That wasn’t to be. The first page of the album had a picture of his house. "The first story building in the whole local government area. The first in the town," he said.
This man is mad, I concluded. Alice stood up, said she wanted to see what Benita was preparing for the evening meal.
"This is the second," the professor pointed at another two-story building constructed a few years after the civil war. The third page had yet another one-story block. He explained when it was built.
Why does this man go about taking pictures of people’s houses, I thought, disgust churning in my intestine.
"That was built by a small business boy."
"Obele," I said, recalling the light-skinned short businessman.
Robert came out and stood at the door’s threshold so that some strings of the beaded curtain rested on his shoulder. Thanks be to God, I said to myself and quickly rose from my seat. I stood for a while pretending to admire the few pictures on the wall, but it was to minimize the effect of my quick, rather undisciplined reaction. I thanked the professor for his generosity. He told me to visit them more often. "Feel at home, this is your home," he had said, a deep satisfied laughter gurgling in his throat.
Wearing a forced smile, I left the parlor, feeling as though I had escaped a stuffy room into fresh air.
The long corridor was what I had imagined it to be; it led to the apartments of the two sons of the house. Robert stood by the doorway to his small sitting room and ushered me in. He had a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt that accentuated his well-built body, and baggy ashy shorts that reached to his knees. He wore sweet-smelling cologne, Galileo, I later saw in his bathroom.
Robert was certainly aware of the effect his smile had on people and he had it on often. He took time to trim his moustache, which he pulled at every once in a while. "I’m pleased you came," he said after I had chosen the brown sofa beside the door. He appeared to dislike the dominant red in the family’s general parlor. His rug, curtains, and sofas didn’t have any trace of red. He loved brown and milk color instead.
"I guess you don’t want to see any album again," he said, laughing.
I liked that comment, relieved that he too disliked his father’s spiritless show of his famed past. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to reveal my feeling about his father. I scratched my chin with my left hand, and crossed my legs.
"You look fine," he said.
I acknowledged the compliment, which I loved. "Do you have photos from Germany?" I wanted to have a close picture of that country, to see the house he lived in, and his friends.
"Yes, but, yes, of course, I do," he stammered and turned to his reading table, bent to the drawer and brought out a small box of photos. "What do I bring you?" he asked, placing the box on the side-table he had pulled in front of me. "I brought home some German wine. Do you care for a glass?"
I shook my head. I did not take wine, I explained.
"You’re not a teetotaler, are you?"
"No, I do take alcohol, but I don’t like wine."
"Yes, Guinness with Coca-Cola. Small bottle, please."
I liked to mix both, the blend of bitter and sweet tastes. He stood up, walked to my side and pressed the button on the wall a few centimeters above my head. Benita came in shortly and he placed the order. Poor woman.
Robert explained the part of Germany he lived in: Cologne. In one of the pictures, he was wearing a thick overcoat with muffler around his neck, standing in front of the Cologne Cathedral with an African man almost the same height as him. Snow glistened in the background. He revealed to me that the pictures had explanations at the back: Cologne Dom with Paulinus, Winter 1994. The next picture was taken in front of a blockhouse with four black men: John, Monday, Innocent, Me. Five pictures later: Nigerian Embassy, Bonn. Elfriede, Me. He was holding hands with Elfriede whose long blond hair cascaded on her shoulder. She was smiling.
Benita brought the order. A big bottle of Guinness for him. He didn’t allow her to pour for him as she had done for his father. I was impressed.
A lot of beautiful pictures, with lots of African men. Nigerians, Congolese, Ghanaians. The next picture: Bonn Museum. Bianca, me, Okechi. His right hand was placed on Bianca’s shoulder – a red haired, buxom woman with prominent breasts.
"Germany is a beautiful country," I said and took a sip from my drink.
"Yes, a beautiful country. But they are racists."
"Hitler," he said and went on to explain why he considered Germans racists: they killed six million Jews, and they hunt for blacks. He told of the killings in Hoyerswerda and in Sollingen and narrated the difficulties they encountered in their first year there as asylum-seekers, what hell he went through before finally securing his resident permit. Through marriage, I thought, and instinctively reached for my glass. I was beginning to feel the effect of the few swigs of my special blend. The world looked fine.
"The Europeans colonized us," Robert went on. "They took our resources, they made us poor, and now they want to barricade us from their riches."
I didn’t want to dwell on the accusation, which was correct. "Your father abhors the military," I said flipping through the pictures.
"Who doesn’t? They’re the cause of it all."
And he was right. At least partially. The military, it is said, had looted more than 50 billion dollars in the years of their reign. But I thought it was like the proverbial beating a dead horse talking about it. I’ve never loved to discuss the military. The discussion was never productive. Talking about the soldiers made us whiners, which instinctively also pushed the whole burden of our responsibilities to the other, making us appear innocent. Believing we’re innocent, we refuse to take on responsibilities in our daily lives.
Robert poured the last drops of his bottle in his big glass. Mine was gone. He glanced at me and then at the empty bottle. "Should I bring you another bottle?"
I shook my head; I had reached my limit. I glanced at the watch. 6pm. Our eyes met. He smiled. "Hope you’re not planning to go yet?"
I didn’t say anything. Dusk in December fell like stone from heaven. In the next thirty minutes it would be dark. As though he read my mind, he said I needn’t bother about darkness; he’d drive me home. He had a new model Mercedes Benz 230, the so-called ‘V’ boot. I looked up and nodded. I put the pictures back in the box.
"What do you say to my letters?" he said and stared me pointedly in the eyes. I felt my heart skip.
"They had no sender’s address," I said, trying my best to hide an accusing hint in my tone.
"I’m sorry for that," he said, but did not go on to explain. I didn’t insist on explanations either.
"You lived in a good house," I merely said, referring to his house in Germany. Many of the young men, we heard, spent their whole years in deserted army barracks till they were deported to their countries.
Robert averted my eyes for a while, and then he brought them back. "I asked my mother to talk with you."
"Yes, she came to the campus, but she didn’t meet me. She dropped a note."
"Then your return," I said, and felt a bit ill at ease. We didn’t have time to talk when he came to the campus.
"Do you have a friend?" he asked, his smile unlocking to a macho pose.
I looked up, not liking the interrogatory nature of the question. Only at that point did I feel the insult of his letters without sender’s addresses. "I don’t understand what you mean."
I hesitated for a while. "Ahmed Suleiman," I said.
"A Northerner, Muslim?"
I stared, wanting to know what that meant.
"How strong is the friendship?"
"What do you mean?"
"Is he going to marry you?"
"Am I going to marry him?"
"Is he going to marry you?" he insisted.
"I don’t know."
"Are you sure he doesn’t have a girlfriend in the North?"
What has it to do with you? I thought. "How would I know?" I said.
"You didn’t ask him?"
"I thought if he had he’d tell me."
"What? How do you think he’d tell you?"
I shrugged. Why wouldn’t he?
"And if he didn’t tell you?"
"I’m not a detective."
"If he were serious, he’d tell me about his background," I said. "It’s up to me to know how to go about it."
My friendship with Ahmed was non-committal. None of us played with the thought of marriage. I wasn’t ready to live in the North. Nor was he prepared to live in the East.
"You baffle me with your thought."
"What is baffling about it?"
"I mean you surprise me positively. Not many women think the way you do."
I shrugged, kept silent.
"Which of the two white women did you marry?" – the question must have come to him as a shock.
"How did you know I married?" his voice trembled a bit.
I didn’t say a word. I bit the inner part of my lower lip, and then forced a smile. How else could you have secured residence permit? "Never mind," I said.
He smiled. "Elfriede."
"I thought as much," I added.
He must have realized it was better to be simple and honest with me. I could live in any marriage arrangement; I only needed to be informed so that I knew what I was bargaining for. I understood that a lot of men entered into marriage contract in order to secure green cards in America. Perhaps there’s nothing wrong in that. But that wasn’t the case with Elfriede, as he later explained. She loved him, and she didn’t know he was planning to divorce her and marry a fellow Igbo. I didn’t like that. No, I detested that.
"How would she feel if she knew about this?" I asked.
"How would she feel?" he repeated and stared at me for a moment, I guessed, in search for an adequate answer. "How did whites feel when they deceived and exploited us Africans?" he asked.
I couldn’t believe that answer, and I felt an intense dislike for him. "But she’s not just a white person, she’s Elfriede," I argued.
"I know," he concurred.
I was sad. "I don’t think you know," I insisted bringing up my face to challenge him with my look. And I was happy for this new courage and idea. Your mind tended to work a bit faster when you felt sad or some indignation.
"What do you mean?" he asked, his voice turning velvety.
"She loves you," I said looking him in thee eyes.
He smiled; beautiful, yet helpless. "Do you think there can ever be love between Europeans and Africans?"
"I don’t get what you’re saying," I said, feeling my throat getting dry.
"History. But that’s history. Have you forgotten?"
"No," I said and wanted to say something but I didn’t know what it was. I stared at him, unbelievingly. How could history determine your relationship with a person you must have told you loved and who loved you? I thought and just then I put myself in Elfriede’s position. The more I saw myself in her shoes, the more my dislike for Robert leavened to hate. His thinking was simple: If I accepted to marry him, he would divorce Elfriede the following year. By then he would have secured permanent residency. Then he could legally live in Germany with me. I raised my face, wishing his beautiful body had a different mind. Or heart?
"You can’t imagine living in Germany," he said.
"Why not?" I said and shrugged.
"Don’t you really want another bottle of Guinness or Coca-Cola?" he asked, wiping his forehead.
I shook my head. I had a few things I wanted to tell him, but I could not. My heart was beating rashly, and my forehead was hot. I remembered one of the few wise sayings my father said his mother told him: whoever saw any foreigner as an enemy would eventually see his own kind as such. He loved his mother dearly and quoted her every so often. So, remembering my grandmother’s words, and putting myself in Elfriede’s position, I felt I would experience her fate someday. I would cease to be Chinwe and would become a woman, just a woman, a member of particular species or gender, a woman who used to belong to a particular class.
When our eyes met, I nodded lightly, still wearing a smile that was foreign to me. I felt I was gasping for air, and that the room was getting unusually hot. "I’ll think about it. Could you drive me home."
"You’ll think about it, sure?"
He smiled. That was the last think I wanted to see on his face.
About the author
Chielo Eze is a Nigerian and teaches English, Postcolonial and African Literature at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago.