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Friends Since Armitage Days

By  Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo

(Nigeria)

 

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Most times, I like slinking away. The endless banter of my kids and infighting between their mothers is hell and can drive a man crazy.

For the past two weeks, I have been holed up in Gondola Camp. This time however, neither because of my kids nor my wives. I am in a UN workshop. Alone at the cafeteria, I dig into the fried lump of barracuda on my plate, wishing the workshop would last forever. Moments later as I wash down my barracuda with chilled beer, a shadow from behind falls across my plate. Before I can look back, a hand clasps my left shoulder. I almost choke. Who the hell can be playing this expensive joke with me?

“Dear me, dear me,” I burst out on taking in the clean-shaven face with sparkling white, not too even teeth peeping out of robust lips. “How nice to see you. I missed you, man.”
“I missed you too,” James says, the sound emanating from somewhere deep in his belly.
Old pals that we are, we embrace and pat each other’s back like we always do whenever we meet. Hearing us talk of missing each other, one gets the impression that we have not seen one another for aeons. But it is exactly a fortnight ago that we drank beer until midnight at the Monument. James ended up drinking six instead of his usual three bottles. I drove him home in his car, and then came back in a taxi for my jalopy, a Renault 3. The following morning, I took off for Gondola.

“What brings you here, business?” I say, pulling a chair for him. “Join me please, let’s share my fried fish.”
Sitting down opposite me, James shakes his head slowly. No thanks, he says. He has had something to eat. His eyes are puffy and bloodshot. I think, Lack of sleep. His Afro hair, usually well combed, is ruffled. A few black stains present themselves on his silk tie, which hangs askew. Coffee. James is a coffee addict. He drinks it neat all day. He has become a Frenchman by association and speaks the language fluently.
“Beer then?” I say.
“Coffee.”
Wiping my mouth and moustache with serviette, I push remnants of my lunch aside and beckon to a waitress. She rushes forward as if given a violent push from behind. She is young, seventeen, maybe eighteen. Supple. She is probably new on the job.
“A cup of coffee for this gentleman please,” I say. “No sugar.”
“Sir, we have run out of coffee.”
“Let’s drink beer then, James. What do you say?”
James says nothing.
“Eh, James? What do you say?”
Still no reply.

His eyes are focused on something in the distance. I follow his gaze. I make out a dozen or so pelicans scattered on the brown waters of the slow flowing river, fishing. Steam rises from the water, gives the surface a fizzy appearance. I shift my eyes to the riverbanks. It is low tide. Black mud is spread as far as the eye can see; hundreds of jagged rocks and stones litter everywhere. The shrieks of two kingfishers colliding in mid air reach our ears. We raise our heads. Our eyes seek and locate them as they fly their separate ways, the black of their feathers shimmering against the sunlight, burning in the cloudless sky. One of the kingfishers rises far into the sky, turns head down, folds his wings neatly and swoops down with lightening speed, crashing into the liquid brownness, spraying water. I start violently. In a jiffy, he is out of the water, a struggling crayfish between his beaks.

I exhale slowly.

James isn’t admiring the scenery. The fancy comes to me that he is ill.

“Get us six bottles of beer,” I say to the waitress who is struggling not to look James’s way. I point to a grass hut by the edge of the river where it is supposed to be cooler. “Bring the beers over there.”
“Sir, ice cubes?” the waitress says.
“Lots,” I say.
I nudge James lightly on the ribs. He shows me his teeth: an attempt at smiling. My heart goes out to him.

The beers arrive. I watch James. He opens one, empties the entire 280ml into his tumbler, and tosses the bottle into the river. The bottle bobs about for a few seconds, swallows water, and begins to sink. Bubbles from it rise to the surface. James swirls the contents of his tumbler a bit, isn’t happy with the result; starts to use one long finger to mix the beer and ice cubes, changes his mind; licks the finger; takes one long swallow, stares into the distance.

I take a sip straight from my bottle, smack my lips not too loudly, and feel my moustache. It isn’t wet. I rub it down; sort of flatten the hair to keep them slick.

Under normal circumstances, James isn’t to be rushed. The circumstance as I see now is abnormal. His business rarely brings him outside the diplomatic circle in the city. I wait. I have the patience of a professional salesman.

The riverbank smells. I try placing the odour. I can only arrive at the smell of soiled underclothes. I see James wrinkle his nose. I do the same. That night at the Monument, I hadn’t ascribed James’s drunkenness to anything unusual. As I think about it now, I begin to wonder, Have I been paying enough attention to my childhood friend?

Time passes.

“How would you define faithfulness?” James says, startling me. His voice is scarcely audible. I feel like a deadly wasp has stung me. I need to clear my head. I stall for time by picking my nose. James lets me think.
“You mean being faithful?” I say after a while.
“Yes, being faithful.”
“To what?”
“To one’s partner.”
“Is Carol…,” I begin, then change my mind. Instead I say, “Why do you ask?”
“Don’t answer my question with question.”
“I’ve to know why before I can give a responsible answer,” I say. “I’ve to know the particulars.”
James broods. I know he is thinking about my use of the word, ‘particulars’, as if I am a traffic policeman: driver, let me see your particulars. My brain formulates and discards one definition of ‘faithfulness’ after another. It must have dispensed with more than a hundred such definitions.
“Faithfulness …being faithful, you say, it’s a bit more complex …more complicated than you can imagine,” I say.
“That is not a definition,” James says. “And you know it,” he ends, his nostrils flaring.
“Look, I can hardly give you a reasonable answer unless I know why you are asking,” I say.
“I’m not a happy man,” he says to me.
Under normal circumstances, I would have said to him, ‘James dear, you are a big fool.’ But I say:
“You make me laugh.”
“You think because I’ve a good paying job-”
“And wonderful children-”
“And wonderful children …and know people in high places, I should be happy?”
“You are not even forty-five yet, see what you have already achieved in life,” I say, my voice suddenly rising. “God has spread mayonnaise on both sides of your bread and you say you are not happy. What do you want people like me to say, or are you mocking me? James, did you travel all the way to this secluded resort to mock me?”
I spit into the river, watch the white foam float away; take a generous swig from my beer; check my anger. I rub down my moustache, make it slick. James leaves his beer alone, wrings his fingers, looks confused.
“All that you have so quickly enumerated does no make one truly happy?” he says.
“Besides, you have such a pretty wife, Carol. Shapely, tall, unbleached like most women out there, my wives included.”
“Yes. Carol is very pretty. Ever since I set eyes on her in Armitage, I’ve not stopped marvelling at her beauty.”
“You don’t know how lucky you are, James. Sometimes, I wish you and I could swap places, for a few days, even hours.”
“You don’t know what you are talking about.”
“But I do.”
“Don’t ever wish you were in my fucking shoes.”
James voice is loaded with regret. I am instantly alarmed.
“Why?” I say, my voice dropping to a whisper.
“I’m suffering.”
I am convinced now that James is sick. I take a closer look at him. His hairline seems to have receded several inches. His cheeks look hollow. Are my eyes playing tricks on me?
“James, are you ill or something?” I say.
“I’m perfectly healthy.”
“Carol isn’t sick or something, is she?”
“Depends on what you mean.”
“But I saw her only last two weeks …with Susan.”
Time passes as James digests this piece of information.
“Tell me,” he says suddenly, “how well do you know Susan?”
“You ask me that question?” I say. “She is your wife’s best friend, isn’t she? They have been best friends since Armitage days.”
“Susan isn’t married.”
This is an undisguised accusation
“Ever wondered why?” he says further.
“James, that is hardly my business,” I say. “Besides, not every woman wants to be shackled to one man for life, you know.”
“That is hardly the point.”
“What then is the point?”
“Ever seen her with a man before, I mean going out for a date or being chatted up, fondled for example?”
I uncork another beer for myself, take a generous swallow.
“One for me please,” James says.
I open another for him. He takes a long swig. Out in the water, some pelicans take off from further afield, land nearby; others take off from nearby, fly several meters, land exactly where the first set had taken off from.
“Not exactly,” I say after a while.
“Not exactly what?”
“I have never really seen Susan being fondled for example.”
“That is exactly the point, damn it.”
“What exactly are you getting at?”
“When I think of it now as I’ve been doing every passing minute lately, ever since Armitage days, I never saw Susan with guys, not during our out nights, or times when we visited other schools for games or quiz contests. Carol was the only person you ever saw her with. Remember we wondered why?”
I say nothing. James continues, serious as a church.
“They ate together, slept together, had their baths together, studied together. At night when they stepped in dark areas, they quickly reached for each other, held hands. When we asked them-”
“But you were happy with the arrangement then …seeing that being together always, other boys couldn’t play pranks with your Carol.”
“But after Armitage, they still remained inseparable.”
“Isn’t that what being good friendship is all about, being there for each other always?”
“Something happened in Armitage that I never told you. I never thought it meant anything until recently.”
“Probably worrying yourself silly for a nothing.”
For several seconds, James looks at me from the corner of his eyes, as if to say, ‘Don’t tell me you are so na´ve.’ I look away. He goes on:
“Once, I caught Carol and Susan having a heated argument. The only time I had seen them doing that. I had promised to meet Carol in our usual reading corner, near the old mango tree. Somehow, I had come earlier than I said I would. Approaching, I overheard voices. I was going to rush forward to stop any fight when I recognised the voices. I hid behind a disused oil drum and tried to listen. They began speaking in hushed tones. Susan suddenly began to weep. Bitterly. I was shocked. As abruptly as she had begun, she stopped, wiped her tears with the back of her right hand. I heard Carol say: ‘Nothing will come out of it, Sussy. Nothing, not even marriage can tear us apart. We will always remain what we are to each other.’
“They hugged each other, pecked themselves lightly on both cheeks.”

I take a long swig from my bottle to hide my embarrassment. I watch a pelican fly past overhead. As if on cue, others flap their wings noisily, spraying water; rise to the sky and disappear. Another kingfisher, probably that first fellow falls into the water again. He emerges and flies away, screaming. I wonder if he has impaled himself on an unsuspecting rock. He didn’t even catch his crayfish.

“Look, James,” I say trying to sound brave but failing miserably, “there is nothing to what you witnessed. Girls feel that way when a guy comes out of the blues to mess up their friendship. Since we are being frank with each other, I might as well let you know that I too felt bad when you married Carol. It wasn’t easy making new friends.”
“Ours was different.”
“I don’t see how. Carol and Susan felt for each other what you and I felt.”
“But you have since found your life, haven’t you? For instance, you are married with two wives and children of your own. You have other friends and don’t always need me around you always. But Susan continues to hang around my wife. Women normally drift apart when one gets married and the other does not. For Carol and Susan, the reverse is the case. Even now, Carol can’t take a leak without Susan watching, as if they are joined at the hip or something. Believe it or not, on our wedding day, Susan cried.”
“She had every right to. You stole her best friend.”
“Her best friend indeed.”
“Look James, give the girls a break, will you. Is that why you are not happy, that your wife continues to be friendly with her old time chum who unfortunately isn’t married?”
“To hell with you. You are beginning to sound as if I look down on Susan because she is not married.”
“That is how any objective person would see it.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I do. Unless there are some other things you have not told me.”
“Let me ask you something, tell me, are you free with Binta and Sainabou?”
“My wives?”
“Yes, Your wives. Are you free with them?”
“Am I free with my wives? …what do you mean, am I free with my wives? What kind of question is that?”
“What I mean is this …do they allow you to do everything …anything …I mean …you know what I mean with them?”
“Of course they do. They are my wives. Yes, I can do whatever I want with either of my wives.”
“That is the point!”
“I don’t get it.”
“I can’t go all the way with my Carol. I er… just er… enter and come, that is all. And even that is a rare phenomenon.”
“What? No foreplay?”
“She doesn’t allow it. No foreplay. Nothing like foreplay.”
“How do you manage? Where is the fun then?”
“You are beginning to see what I mean when I say I’m not happy …all these seventeen years of marriage, I’ve been suffering.”
“I feel for you if that is the case.”
“Let me tell you what I witnessed some months back. Perhaps you will be able to advice me, because I’m about to run mad.”

We both sip our beers slowly, each in deep thought. Cool wind begins to blow from across the river. The tide is rising. Tadpoles and crabs scramble to get a place on the parts of the rocks and stones not yet overtaken by the rising waters. That is why the pelicans flew away, I think. They know the tide is rising.

“About six months ago,” James begins, “I rushed home from work, quite unlike me to go back home after leaving for work. It was 10 o’clock or thereabouts. Carol was supposed to be home alone. She had said she wasn’t feeling too well to go to work. I wanted to give her a pleasant surprise then. I began to tiptoe towards our bedroom window. I was almost there when I heard the moaning.”
Here, James stops. I wait, anxious for him to continue. When he continued brooding, I say:
“I am listening, James.”
“I froze instantly on my tracks,” he says. “I thought, In my house? On my matrimonial bed? I wanted to turn back and go far, far away, but I couldn’t find the will power. Plucking courage, I peeped into the room. Scattered everywhere were articles of my wife’s underclothes. And some stuff I never thought she could ever posses, or that I would ever find in my house. I then caught sight of a pair of man’s jeans, a size 38.”
“My God,” I say unable to withstand the tension. I took a deep breath, forced air through my mouth.
“A closer peep into the room revealed my present nightmare. On the bed were the two bodies, entangled, oblivious to the world. Kissing. Caressing. Loving each other passionately. Then I saw a hand pass between Carol’s thighs and a finger disappeared inside her. She allowed it without any retort, moaning at the top of her voice. I died. Such intimacy was a privilege I had longed for since I married Carol. As if that wasn’t enough, I watched the other fellow nibble every crest of her body. Gradually, a head was buried between Carol’s legs. Carol sang with ecstasy. All my life, I had never had the privilege of hearing my wife cry so. Sudden jealousy blinded me. Then I took a closer look at this light-skinned robust fellow with well-cropped hair violating my own wife in my own bedroom. When I saw who this fellow was, bile rose to my mouth and I fled, mad as a rabid dog.

“As soon as I was in the privacy of my car, I vomited all over the dashboard. Then I drove off like a man the devil was after. Like a man possessed by evil spirits. I didn’t return to the office. How could I? And I had a diplomatic meeting to chair; I had just been made the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps. I kept driving. I drove to Old town. From Old town, I drove to Market Road, Traffic light. I crossed the ferry to Bodo. Coming back from Bodo, I drove to Ring Road. I took any road devoid of traffic. My cell phone kept ringing. My pager kept beeping. My head was full. I wanted to drink rat poison.”
“Thank God you didn’t.”
“I wanted to drive my car into the river.”
“She was cheating on you,” I say as if the fact was not already obvious.
“That is what I wanted to know when I asked you to define ‘faithfulness’ for me.”
“What?” I cry. “You caught your wife on your bed in your house with a fellow and-”
“And I’ve known that fellow all my life.”
“Do I know this fellow?” I say, straightening up and staring James in the face. To steady my nerves, I take a long swig from my bottle. James sip his beer too, spilling half of the content. Then he says:
“Yes you know this fellow.” His voice shook.
“Who was he?” I say.
“This fellow wasn’t a ‘he’.”
“What do you mean, ‘fellow wasn’t a he’?”
“It was Susan.”

Silence takes possession of us. My thoughts roam: Susan? Dear God. James, I hope you are not bumming.
“I’m so sorry James,” I say, ending the screaming silence.
James rubs a tear. My heart brakes. I bring out my handkerchief, place it where he can reach it. I gaze into the distance. I make out workshop participants trooping to the conference room. They can go this session without me, I think. We sit there a long time staring at the river, at our feet, at the sky, saying nothing; looking everywhere but at each other. The chill begins to set in.
“Let’s go to my room,” I say.
I lead the way. James follows. We stay up the whole night, not saying much to each other.
____________________

James leaves the next day. As I escort him to his car, people recognise him.
“I’ll come next week for a Shengan visa,” someone says jokingly.
“Diplomats,” another says loud enough for everyone to hear. “Such easy lives.”
I smile. James smiles too.
“I’ve borne the burden of this knowledge all alone since,” James says as he starts his Lexus, the engine purring contentedly. “I needed to talk to someone. You will forgive me for… for crashing in on you like I did. I hope I have not ruined your ‘Capacity Building’ workshop.”

I had found no single counsel to offer James. The thought killed me. That night and the following four nights, I toss and turn on my bed.
____________________

As soon as I get back, I go to see James in his office. Before him is a steaming jug of coffee. His porcelain cup is half empty. He is unusually chatty.
Did I care for some coffee?
No I didn’t. Thank you.
He brewed it himself, couldn’t wait for his secretary. Coffee was good for me. Didn’t I say I was watching my potbelly? Caffeine would burn off the excess fat. He read it somewhere. Couldn’t remember where exactly.
He suddenly stops talking, cocks his head as if to listen. I too cock my head to listen. The hum of the central AC carries through from outside. A clock ticks away by the far wall. In the outer office, James’s secretary’s UPS beeps. Her computer keys clatters away merrily.
“So what are you going to do now?” I say when we had both relaxed, content that no one is eavesdropping on us.
“I’ve not an inkling,” he says.
“Women are deep.”
“All these years.”
We both fall silent. An eerie feeling envelope us.
“When I came back from visiting you at Gondola,” he says, “I met up with Susan. She was just leaving my house. She had an overnight bag. The children confirmed that she spent the night there. I’ve been blind all these years. You know, she always came to keep Carol company when I was away on tour.”
James sighs. My Adam’s apple bobs up and down. We think our different thoughts.
“Will you put her away?” I say after a while.
“I’m a Roman Catholic.”
“Surly, the priest would understand.”
“Carol’s folks would say I had found someone else. That I was giving a dog a bad name to justify its death.”
“Ban Susan from your home,” I say. “Break them up.”
As soon as it leaves my mouth, I am sick at heart for making this suggestion. Break them up? Impudent old fool that I am, not to have held my silly tongue. Abysmal old windbag that I am. But I am angry. I feel betrayed too. Carol is a woman I hold up there.

In the distance, a car starts, revs its engine, and screeches away, the noise fading with it.
“Breaking them apart would hardly solve the problem,” James says. “Neither would banning Susan from my house.”
I nod.
“It’s an integral part of their elements now,” I say.
James bangs the table suddenly, startling me and upsetting his cup of coffee.
“Point is,” he says through gritted teeth, “what the hell do I do with Carol? James please tell me?”
I sigh, swallow hard, and exhale deeply, my shoulders drooping. I had no counsel whatsoever to offer James. The shame gags me.
____________________

Two weeks later, James confronts Carol. It is in my presence.
“Can’t trust myself to face her alone,” he had said when I protested about being present during the confrontation.
“I’m sorry if I’ve disappointed you,” Carol opens her defence. “I tried to warn you long ago, but you wouldn’t listen. Sussy and I’ve something special. Besides, I’ve been a good wife to you. ”
“By bringing a slut to make out on our matrimonial bed?” James says.
Tempers flare.
“Don’t call her a slut,” Carol says, the sound issuing from her lips like steam from a geyser.
“She is nothing but a slut. A fucking-”
A hush falls over us. James bows his head, cradles it in both hands. He is ashamed. I am embarrassed. I bow my head too.
Carol breaks the silence.
“Then I’m a slut, you mean?”
“Look, look, James, Carol, this wasn’t why we arranged for this small get-together,” I say for lack of something better.
“What do you know about this?” Carol shouts at me, her eyes blazing. “Keep out. Stay out of it.”
My eyes smart. With determination, I ignore my armpits, which itch badly.
“You have ruined my life,” James says, still holding his head.
“Your life! Your life!” Carol cries. “Don’t my life matter? I’m sorry if you see it that way, that I’ve ruined your life, but there is nothing I or anybody can do about it. Think of me, think, both of you. If I had my way, I could have happily stayed out of a heterosexual marriage. I’m not as strong willed as Sussy. Besides, her folks understand. Okay maybe because she is a half-caste, what with her mother being a European. My parents would never have taken it. Accepting that I was different would have killed them. You don’t know how I’ve suffered all these years. Hiding. Fretting. Looking out of the window, behind my back, expecting to find you, the kids, relatives, people, staring wide-eyed as Sussy and I touched. Or kissed. Since we became husband and wife, I’ve lived through hell. Don’t you see? You only think about yourselves. Men! Where is the love you have for me, James? This is the time to prove it. Prove it now, that you really love me!”

Carol is shaking. What a challenge. I am deep in thought. For once, I don’t envy James. We had chosen an isolated place by the beach for our little get-together. I look around. No soul is in sight, only the wide, wild sea, shimmering in the distance like a piece of glass struck by a million sunrays.
Carol isn’t through yet:
“Having an alternative lifestyle doesn’t make me less of a human being,” she says. It doesn’t make me evil. It just makes me me. No one will even try to understand. Why don’t you two leave me alone? Leave me alone.”
“You will have to calm down Carol,” I say, a little quake to my voice.
“Keep out,” Carol rounds on me. “What do you know about this?”
“James,” she says, “if you don’t want me in your house, I’ll go quietly away. But please spare my children. The knowledge of what I’m will hurt them. Spare my poor parents. I love them so much to bring them pain. I know I’ve failed all of you, but then this is my life. ”
“With you I’ve never felt like a man,” James blurts out. “With you I’ve never gotten the pleasure of sexual satisfaction. Meanwhile, you have been doling it out-”
“At least, it wasn’t to a man,” I say, my counsel seeming insufficient. I hated myself.
“You should have told me, Caroline. Perhaps- perhaps we would still have gotten married.”
“You are a good man, James, you are. But you would have been more than a saint to agree to marry a self-confessed lesbian. It would have been cruel to ask that of you. And I couldn’t be cruel to you. You are such a nice person.”
Carol blows her nose noisily, beginning to sob.
“You know James, I’m not ashamed,” she says in-between sobs. “I didn’t create myself. I tried loving the male body, your body. I tried loving the ripples of muscles on your arms, chest, legs and stomach. I tried loving your smell. But it was no use. The feel of your hands upon my skin made me sick. Instead of being wet and warm at the thought of your body against mine at night, I cringed. I dried up. We could never meet without you sustaining bruises. You once said I was frigid. Remember I did not argue with you then? How could I? This body of mine! These senses of mine! I’ve since hated them for being different. For choosing differently. You think it is easy being different? You think being different is my choice?”
All the while Carol is talking, my head is bowed; my jaw rests against my chest.
____________________

I can’t exactly recall how the afternoon ended. Or rather, the thing that I remember most vividly about that afternoon is of walking home with my tail between my legs, like a frightened puppy. James and I had gone out with the intention of shaming Carol. Instead, our eyelids had been prised wide apart. Our eyes were shined.
____________________

But James was a man. Here was Africa. Not fucking Europe or America where one did as it pleased him. How dare Carol? James protested. Not that I blamed him. He began to stay away from home. He arranged one business trip after another, whined endlessly about how unfair life was, and took to making such dark allusions as, ‘One might as well chose one very fine day and hang oneself.’
“She has never been with another man and that is something,” I say one day as we sit brooding, like two school kids awaiting punishment. “Besides, she is quite discreet. She respects your feelings.”
James, with jaws apart gapes at me. I ignore him and continue:
“Think of what will happen to your kids if you let the rope slip.”
But this was asking too much from James. Or from any man for that matter. The James I knew -the James I used to know- was one who even when at his wits’ end kept a bold face. But this problem of finding his wife in such an uncompromising situation. It was a huge wave.

He continued to stay out late and arranged more travels. His office became his home. He dressed poorly, ate poorly, lost weight. He drank more coffee. Neat. And he drank more beer. And gin and brandy and whisky too. He became depressed. Then he made a diplomatic blunder. The French country he was serving was embarrassed. They threw him out, appointed a new Charge de Affair. James’s life disintegrated. I knew it would not be long before his family went to ruin. I stopped going to his house. Or visiting him in his office. I was afraid.

Months have since passed.

I don’t know how he is faring. The shame. It kills me, being of no use to him, like a loose tooth. Yes, a loose tooth. That is what I am, a loose tooth. James had been good to me. With his diplomatic connections, I had done myself well; padded myself real easy. I still maintain the contacts he gave me. I wish I could do something to halt the rot he and his family is experiencing. But I am a loose tooth, of no use. I might as well choose a fine day and… Or better still, slink away somewhere, never to be seen again.

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