By Ify Okoli (Nigeria)
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She was excited. It was the most she had been in her life. She had a date.
A date with a stranger but a date nevertheless.
It made the corners of her mouth tilt up in a smile. The smile softened her face, made her look more human, more like a woman and less the monster she knew people saw. Her long lean fingers tapped gently on her knee caps as she thought of a song that would match her mood. Oh happy day…
"Madam, shift," a masculine voice impatiently commanded, already jostling her. For a second, she forgot what she was, where she was and turned to ask if he was more comfortable.
"Sir, are you more relaxed…" Her voice trailed off. The man stared, looked away and stared again. His eyes widened. His face scrunched as if he smelt something foul. Then he looked away and did a quick sign of the cross. She noticed the rosary that dangled from his bony wrist. He got up and quickly scrambled away. She was left alone on the seat of the bus that would normally occupy four. She turned away and faced the window. She didn't look back as others entered and as the bus drove off, not until her bus stop. This time, she remembered. She raised her shawl over her head, covering part of her face.
"Stop!" Her voice was sharper.
The bus veered off the road and parked. She got down and entered the building with the signpost that read "Delightees".
She sat down on one of the seats away from others but aware that they were watching her. The servers at the counter eyed her and lost interest. She still had her shawl over her head. She looked like every other customer to them. She would order in her own time, they thought or maybe she was waiting for someone. She took out her phone and dialed (dialled) Gaga's number.
"Gaga, are you at Delightees yet?" she asked looking around hoping to find someone on the phone too. She couldn't wait to get this over with.
"I am about to enter the building. Are you there?"
"Yes. I am putting on a blue Ankara dress and I have a shawl on. Gaga, there is something you must know…"
"What? I am already here," he said and laughed as if she was being an impatient child that couldn't wait to open Christmas gifts. He had a great laugh, loud and carefree. He sounded like someone who knew how to enjoy life. He had also sounded that way on the internet. It had attracted her, made her wonder what life would be like with a man by her side, someone to appreciate her and call her beautiful even though she knew she would never be.
He came in through the doors and she knew instantly that it was him though she had never seen him. He fitted the picture she had conjured in her lonely mind. He was tall, huge, had a clean shaven head, was quite handsome if he shaved off his moustache and he walked with a slight bounce.. He looked around and she resisted the urge to slink away and head for the bathroom. She wanted to run away. Reluctantly, she waved. He saw her and smiled. As he came close, she caught a whiff of his masculine perfume and felt even lonelier all of a sudden. It reminded her how old and very single she was.
"Hi," he said and kissed her on her forehead as if they were lovers. She felt something warm erode her heart. She still had her shawl on. She noticed that his hands were slightly shaking. He was as nervous as she was.
"Gaga," she breathed because she could not help it. He sat down and his presence seemed to take over the whole space. He had long legs.
"I feel like I have known you for ages. We've been chatting for how long now? Ten, eleven months?" He laughed self consciously.
"I feel the same way too," she said shyly.
"You haven't ordered. What will you like to take?"
He went over to the counter and placed their orders. Drinks. They were both too keyed up to take anything more. When he returned, she was more composed. More composed. More afraid.
He was staring at her face, drinking in the features. She was staring too. The moment had arrived.
"Why are you covering your face? I want to see you, sweet heart. This is our first time and I couldn't sleep at the hotel room last night just thinking about you. I want to see you." That laugh again.
She went cold. Their drinks arrived. They were cold too. Interest was replaced by wariness then fear. She knew the time would come but she was not sure she was ready for it.
"I can't let you see it yet. You won't like it."
"What?" Laugh. "How can I not like your face? You sent your picture, remember? I think you are the most beautiful woman I have seen."
Lies. All lies. She had lied. He was lying.
"I lied. I am sorry, Gaga. I am not as beautiful as the picture you saw"
She slowly pulled the shawl away from her face but her head was still covered. Her reflection in his shocked eyes stared back at her. The good eye was pleading with him to understand. The bad eye remained angry and horrific like it had always been for as long as she could remember. His mouth fell open. Then he grimaced, a sound she was accustomed to. He looked away. She felt as if a knife had been plunged into her heart and was gently being pulled out. So much for wishful thinking. His laughter had stopped. Tears filled her good eye quickly. She pulled the shawl back over her head, mumbled an apology and fled the Delightees. For ten minutes, she had had a life partner.
When she got home, her aunty was waiting for her. By the look on her face, the redness of her eye, Aunty Mabel knew what had happened and had expected it yet could feel anger surge up in her. Who did he think he was, anyway? Aunty Mabel enfolded the younger woman in her arms and let her cry. She could feel her body convulsing in tears that came from deep within her, a place where no one had yet reached.
"Did he hurt you? Say hurtful words?" Aunty Mabel asked.
"Nothing." Hiccup. "He said nothing."
His silence had said it all.
The week after that, she was due for an interview in an advertising agency. She wore her khaki coloured skirt suit and huge dark shades that covered almost half of her face. She summoned courage and went first to a cyber café along the way to check her mails. There was nothing from Gaga. He had disappeared from her life. She was more relieved than disappointed. She would have felt insulted if he had tendered any form of apology. She still dreamt of him at night, still heard his laughter in her heart but she had accepted her fate. She was doomed to remain ugly. And single.
When she was called into the office, she was apprehensive. Five men in dark no-nonsense suits stared back at her, unsmiling. They were looking up into her covered eyes hidden behind the shades. She studied them.
"Yes? How can you come in here wearing that? Do you think this is a disco club or a gym?" the man that asked was at the head of the table and he had a heavy Ibo accent.
"How old are you?" another asked in his high pitched nasal voice. He was the light brown colour of a mixed race.
"Thirty seven, Sir."
"And you don't know that you can't come into an interview in sun shades. Please leave this office, Madam and come back when you are ready," the first man spoke again, clearly annoyed.
"I have a disability, Sir. I am blind in one eye."
"So? But you can see with the other, is that not so?" asked Mister Ibo accent. The others nodded.
"Don't waste our…our time, Ma…Madam. We have others to…to…to attend to," said yet another sharply. He talked too fast.
She took off her shades in one swift move, getting angry herself.
"Better now but…" started Mr. Ibo accent. His large nose scrunched up. The others looked away. Only Mr. Light brown stared back with interest. He was studying her, unflinching.
"Er thank you, Madam. Do sit down."
The interview barely lasted five minutes while others had been complaining that they spent too much time with them. As she left, she put her sun glasses back on. She knew that she was not getting the job.
She was too tired when she got down from the bus at the last bus stop and her head had begun to ache. Two children, twin girls from the next door were playing a game of ten-ten, clapping their hands and jumping energetically to the rhythm of their clapping. They were singing and their voices were loud until they saw her. Their younger brother was very ill and was in the hospital. They had lost their other sister some months earlier. She registered the shock on their faces before they scrambled to their home, almost falling over each other. They shouted to her from the window, "witch! witch!"
She wanted to go in and caution their mother to scold her children but decided against it. This was not the first time neither would it be the last. She remembered that she had always wanted to work with children. She had once volunteered at the children's ward of the hospital where her aunty worked as a nurse but had been turned down. Very kindly, the matron in charge had told her that the children would find her presence too 'upsetting'. She had taken the cue and left, never turning back.
There was no light. She unlocked the door and collapsed on one of the chairs backing the window. The tiny room was stuffy. Her aunty was not in. She contemplated a visit to one of the doctors again but shuddered at the thought of it. Plastic surgery. Sixteen operations – Five major and eleven minor. The hospital was one place she had vowed she was not going back to. Even if she changed her mind, she was broke. She didn't have the money to go through with any more operations. Her aunty did not make much either. They barely were able to feed themselves on her aunty's salary alone.
Aunty Mabel found her like that when she returned later that night.
She was a dark form huddled on a chair by the door until Auntil Mabel lit the candel. She jumped startled. She had not heard her aunty come in.
"How did the interview go?"
"Good evening Ma."
"How did the interview go?" she repeated.
"Not well. They are not going to call me back."
"How do you know?"
She pointed. Aunty Mabel followed the direction of her finger then she turned to place the candle on the mantelpiece.
"Don't be pessimistic, I warn you. You will have a beautiful life, you just wait and see."
She hated it when her aunty said that. She no longer believed in fairies and castles. She was a realist. Life had not gone well for her especially ever since the accident.
"Mammy, tell me how my parents died. Tell me how I got scarred," she said quietly. The light from the candle cast her face in sharp angles of light and dark. She looked fierce.
"You know the story already."
"I want to hear it again!"
Aunty Mabel told her. After the tale, Aunty Mabel stood up to go to bed. Before she left, she turned and said, "when we want orange juice but life gives us lemons, the best is to make lemon juice with them."
Long after the candle had burnt down, she sat still, wondering and thinking of what could have been and what might have been. What would have happened if she had not been in the car when the accident happened? What would have happened had she not been sitting in the back seat? What would have happened had a gallon of petrol not been in the car?
The noise woke both of them the next morning. For the first time since they had moved in some months ago, the women of the compound were having a prayer meeting together in the middle of the compound.
Iya Beji, the mother of the twins was the leader of the group. Aunty Mabel insisted that they join them though she hid her surprise that they had not been called to join in the prayers and had not heard anything prior to the meeting. She wrapped a shawl over her head and followed her aunty reluctantly. As they joined them, the feverishness of the prayers seemed to increase. She saw more than a few eyes open, stare in fright and move slightly away, their lips moving.
The leader's voice rang out, "Women, pray that any evil witch, any plans of the devil, any sent agent working amongst us to give our children disease, to make our children die, they will fall down and die! Blood of Jesus! I am not afraid of them and I talk to them now because I know they hear me. Witches! Witches, fall down and die! In any form you are, be it human or spirit or deformed, fall-oooo! Fall down and die! Fall down and die!" The leader's eyes were open, looking straight at her.
She walked back quickly into the house, her head bowed. A lump rose up in her throat, suffocating her until she was hyperventilating. When she raised her head, her aunty was in the doorway.. She ran past her aunty to the kitchen and snatched a sharp knife. She held it pointing to her stomach. Her aunty doubled over in shock and got on her knees.
"Please my dear, don't do this to me. Don't let the world laugh at me and call me barren again. If you leave me all alone, who will bury me when I die?" her aunty was crying openly. She felt tears burn at the back of her throat and heard her aunty's voice from afar off. There was a roar in her ears that wouldn't go away. Her aunty was in the same position as she was. They were both social outcastes – one, barren and another, deformed. Her aunty held her legs. She felt her aunty's cold tears on her feet.
"What is life, mammy, if the world rejects you?" she asked. The knife clattered to the floor. She held her aunty and rocked her. Their tears mingled together and wet their clothes as they comforted each other.
The morning was cold. It was still so early. She left the compound, past the dirt lined streets and headed towards the bridge. It was a long walk but she did not feel it. Her shawl was as usual around her shoulders and covered most of her head. She was not surprised that the city had come alive so early in the morning. She hardly took notice of the smell of roasted fish and smoke. Conductors, hanging on buses were shouting bus stops to passengers who scrambled to get in first. Beggars, some with half limbs and their mats slung over their shoulders settled down and got ready for the day's work. She got to one end of the bridge and stopped. Though the new day was still fresh with the promise of life, she felt her own life ebbing out of her. She was still alive for her aunty's sake but she was not sure if she could go through with this thing called life that had been cruel to her. She deserved a little happiness, a little acceptance but people just judged her before they got to know her. No one wanted to look beyond her face, beyond her scars, beyond her eye. She touched the left side of her face, traced the uneven bumps, exposed tissue and the widely permanently open eye, the unseeing eye.
She was a human monster.
The word came unbidden to her mind. She pressed her lips together and reached out to the railing of the bridge. The murky waters below invited her, tantalized her, it seemed to come up to her. She imagined herself floating in it. She threw one leg over the railing. Her aunty's picture came into her mind. She remembered the tears they had shared the day before on the kitchen floor. Her aunty would get over her.
Half of her body followed.
Her shawl came undone and fell into the waters below. It floated on the surface.
"Sister, give me food to chop."
The voice so startled her that she almost let go of the railing but caught herself just in time. Turning around, there was a young child standing there, his hand open and ready to receive anything she had to give. He was too young to understand what she had been about to do. He was staring at her with wide innocent eyes. He had a cleft lip and it made him ugly yet his innocent smile said that he was unaware of it. Curious, she pulled back from the railing and looked around. No one had yet noticed them.
"What is your name?" she asked.
"Small boy? How old are you, small boy?"
He lifted four fingers in the air.
"Where is your mother or your father?"
He pointed to the other end of the bridge.
She pulled one end of her wrapper and covered her head then took him by the hand. He led the way. As the young child pointed out his mother, she could hardly conceal her surprise. She was very young, barely eighteen. She had a wrapper covering on her body. She was on the ground by the side of an abandoned kiosk. She looked up when she saw them. She was so thin and so weak that she could barely talk. It took all her effort to narrate her story.
She had married very young and had had complications during delivery of her child which affected her health. Her young child was born with a cleft lip and had been sickly for the first year of his life. The medications had become too much of a burden for her husband to handle. He had run away leaving both of them to fend for themselves. Small boy clung to his mother as if he knew she was dying. His face looked serious as he wiped the tears from his mother's eyes.
By the time, she left both of them, she knew that something had changed in her. It was mid day. When she got home, she passed by the twin children who ran off on seeing her but she was too occupied to notice. She thought of what to do that could help others like herself. Her aunty was not back yet from the hospital. She remembered her knitting wool and crochets lying uselessly in the bottom of her cupboard. She took them out and began to knit. She worked so feverishly and determinedly that by the end of the day, she had finished a small blanket and a pair of socks which she kept aside to take to her new friends the next day. Life was never fair to all. She felt light hearted.
Her aunty met her singing in a loud voice in the kitchen. She was cooking her aunty's favourite meal of boiled yams and egg stew. Her aunty looked at her, puzzled.
"Mammy," she said excited as she led her to a seat. "I have met my life partner."
Her aunty rolled her eyes. "Not again. Where did you meet this one? I hope not on the internet."
She laughed. It was the first time in many years that her aunty had heard her laugh.
"No. Real life, aunty."
She narrated her meeting with the young boy and his mother leaving out the part of her second suicide attempt. At the end, she added, "so that was when I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I want to help the outcasts like myself. I want to give them a reason to live, a part of them that they can hold on to whenever the world turns against them. I will start by these." She showed her aunty the things she had knitted. "As many as I can knit, I will send them to those that need them. I will go out and look for stories such as these and document them so that people can read and know and maybe try to help. Who knows what will happen later?"
"You could even send them to newspapers," her aunty added excitedly. "I know a friend of mine that works in one of these newspaper houses. Let me handle it."
After a while, she said quietly, "Thank you aunty."
"Thank you for what?"
"Thank you for taking me in after…after the accident and nursing me while I was in the hospital. I have never really said thank you before because I was too bitter to realise that all I really need is not far from me. I can't promise that I would stop having mood swings but I know that when I wake up every morning, I wont ask God why he let me live an extra day, I will ask Him to give me more days until I put a smile on your face."
Her aunty smiled through the tears rolling in quick succession down her cheeks.
"My dear, you have always made me smile."