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The Crippled Marriage

By Henry Chukuemeka Onyema (Nigeria)

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Never marry an oku elu, especially one whose breasts are public
property. For when the sweetness of her soup of love disappears it
leaves a bitter taste on the tongue.


Those words reverberated through Ndu’s head as he sipped his lukewarm
beer. He wondered if his late mother had been right all along. She had made that pronouncement in a voice fully of resigned sorrow whenever her son’s will became inflexible.  He had tried to
calm her fears: Chikaodi’s career as a topflight actress was not going
to be an obstacle to their happiness. She was a paragon of marital
virtue, a sturdy oak in a forest of gnarled elms.

But Mama Ndubuisi, as she was popularly called in their village, had
remained unconvinced. Wisely she had not stood in the way of her son, not that she would have succeeded, anyway. Both husband and wife knew
that, despite her smiles and blessing, the old widow stolidly stuck to
her view that no true nwa afo brought into his home a woman who openly
bedded other men, even if it was in a big box with a glass screen.
“There is a bit of reality in acting, my son,” she had said. ‘‘No
true-blooded man kept a super sophisticated woman in his house.’’

Ndu sighed, got to his feet and began to pace his well-furnished study.
For seven years, seven good years, he and Chikaodi had proved Mama, his
extended family, and the wider society wrong. Their marriage had soared
as Chikaodi steadily climbed the rungs of the Nollywood ladder. It was
not easy but Ndu had seen beyond the glitz, glamour, sex sprees and
scandals of the Nigerian film industry. He had focused on the girl who
had captured his heart with her beauty, honesty, kindness, simplicity
and quiet but confident determination years back when they squared off
against each other in the finals of an interdepartmental debate at the
university. Chikaodi was at the head of the Theatre and Dramatic Arts
team while he was the generalissimo of the Law department. The debate
was part of the annual students’ week programme. That particular debate
would always live in the memories of the staff and students who
witnessed it. Theatre artists are not expected to give potential learned
gentlemen verbal iba but this was something else. The judges could not
decide which side won when the session ended. Ndu and Chikaodi had to go
for broke in injury time which ended in favour of the theatre artists by
one point.

Years later, as they were going to formally notify their pastor of their
intentions, Ndu confessed to Chikaodi that he knew his team would lose
when he lost concentration staring at the perfectly chiseled
gap in her upper teeth.

Chikaodi had never had any doubt about the destination of her life’s
train. Fascinated by Julia Roberts, Sharon Stone, Charlie’s Angels, the
various James Bond girls, Christy Essien – Igbokwe and Liz Benson, she
had spurned her lawyer father’s almost tearful counsel to become a
lawyer. The old man took her back in his heart the day she stood before
a barrage of cameras to receive the Best All-Round Actress
award three years after she graduated. His joy knew no bounds the first
day he met his son-in-law.

Ndu downed some more beer. Now it seemed all wrong. Maybe I
should have known, he thought. Only a fool believed that a high-flying
eagle, sailing on the crest of glowing glory, would think of
coming down. The only way was to shoot it right out of the sky. Blast
off its soaring wings with a volley of high velocity steel. Smash
the goal posts before the mid-fielder fired off a deadly shot.

It all started with the god-damned offer. He had known the very first
day she showed him the contract papers. Klein Gough, one of the biggest
independent movie producers in the Netherlands, wanted to cast her on
a big budget English language film about the African prostitution ring
in Europe. He had known from the look in her eyes. This was what she had
sweat gallons for: an opportunity to fly her flag beyond Africa. This
was her chance to conquer the cosmos.

Ndu shook his head as if to clear it of memories of the terrible
exchanges, the tirades and tears, the scud missiles. His soul had almost
torn to pieces at night as he heard Chikaodi quietly weeping her bosom
dry in the guest room, cradling their son in her arms. Klein Gough
wanted a firm answer in a month, or he would pick another
actress. There were many potential African roses seeking to open their
lovely buds to the European sun. Producers in his class were the lords
of the estate.

But the images played out like a first-class compact disc. He wondered
why he had refused to allow her take up the offer. Hell, you know why, a
voice growled in his head. You need a woman in the house, a lady in the
kitchen, a companion in your bed, and a mother for your son.
Don’t be silly; a voice said in his head. The truth is…

“Shut up,” he snapped.

The truth was painful, but never was it known in the history of man or
even the gods that pain suppressed the truth. Truth was as
relentless as the Volkswagen Beetle; as open as a seven-month
pregnancy; as brutal as a mule’s kick.

It all began that evening when he was chilling out with Ademola Ayuba, a
fellow lawyer and his closest friend. They had gotten around to talking
about their career and home lives.

“Old boy, it won’t work if a woman is more successful than her hubby.
This is Nigeria and we are different,” said Ade.

“Come on, you can’t be serious.”

Ade bit off a chunk of meat from the suya stick in his meaty paw. “I mean
it. Look, whenever a wife becomes bigger than her husband, then a new
pair of legs will start wearing the trousers at home.”

“Your wife is a company executive, so you’ll stop her from taking a
promotion which will advance her career?”

The Ministry of Justice mandarin sipped his brandy. “My friend, the day
we signed the lines, a ceiling was placed over her head. I, the lord of
the manor, built the ceiling. Sure, she’ll work, make money and all
that. But outranking me? Come on.”

“I can’t believe you are saying this. At UI you were not like this.”

Ade waved a dismissive hand. “That was Ibadan, those days when our heads
were high up in the clouds, when an okpeke’s cleavage made you forget
your points in a debate.” Both men howled.

“You dey craze. It wasn’t her … you know.”

“Whatever. In my case it was the mammary glands.”

Ndu shook his head in amusement. Mrs. Ayuba had one of the most
formidable pairs of milk buckets he had ever seen. They were more than
enough to quench the thirst of a fully-grown giant, let alone a pint
size like Ade.

“So why deprive their owner of personal fulfillment?”

“So that she can give me what I need. Can you imagine a thirsty husband
with a wife away at international seminars?” He licked his lips
salaciously. Ndu opened his mouth but his friend raised his hand.

“It is much more than that. What’ll happen if your career is not
progressing as you would like and your wife’s zooming faster than a
supersonic jet? Try sucking her breasts and you can thank God if she
doesn’t pull your tongue from its roots.” He roared. Ndu only
managed a wan smile. His friend’s words had cut through his heart
quicker than a centurion’s sword.

That was the truth. His own career had gone down as Chikaodi’s acting
flew high.  He was a senior member of
one of the fastest-rising chambers in Lagos, and had some of the most
mouth-watering clients on his roll. His status as the husband of the
actress who completed the list of Nollywood’s five most formidable
females – the others were Genevive Nnaji, Omotola, Stephenie Okereke and
Rita Dominic – also helped. But he had not anticipated that he would be
stuck at the level of a merely prosperous attorney at this stage of his
career. He had aimed for big things, and with a Second Class Upper he
thought he would be doing big things by now. But so far he was only
doing middle-sized things and living in the shadow of a woman who was
doing even bigger things, though she missed a Second Class Upper by a
point.

He remembered that morning. He had been right here preparing a brief
when Chikaodi knocked. Though grief had robbed her of a kilogramme or
two her mien was placid.

Ndu had thought she was going to plead again. But Chikaodi’s words
shocked him.

“I e-mailed Gough yesterday accepting the offer.”

Ndu looked at her as if she had just peed in the room. “You what?”

Chikaodi instinctively retreated to the door.
“I e-mailed Gough.” Her voice was steady despite its fearful timbre.

Ndu deliberately put down the sheaf of papers. Chikaodi trembled,
knowing that this was not the angel who had stood by her all these
years. But she did not bolt. Ndu came up to her, his eyes pure granite.

“One of us must be mad, and I’m sure it is not me.”

“Ndu, please be reasonable.”

“Shut up,” thundered the tall angry god. “Well, two husbands have never
existed in a family, and it won’t start with mine. Either you turn Gough
down or it is goodbye. You got twenty-four hours.”

“Ndu!” Chikaodi sounded like a mortally wounded hart.

Ndu was unmoved. “You heard me. Twenty-four hours.” He returned to his
seat. Chikaodi felt like a fertile woman abruptly dewombed. With tears
coursing down her cheeks she knelt before her husband.

“Why, darling? Oh, Ndu, why’re you depriving me of this
once-in-a-lifetime chance? I never kept it a secret; I consulted you all
the way. Please, honey, don’t do this. I love you. It is
for our good, for Junior’s fu …”

Ndu’s eyes flashed. “Leave Junior out of this! I’m his father; I decide
his future. Period!”

Chikaodi’s eyes brimmed with love, grief and pain. “Darling, what have
you got against my move? Talk to me, I’m your wife.”

“Then your place’s by my side, not gallivanting all over Europe, baring
your butt on the screen.”

“Good Lord!”

“My decision is final. Take it or leave it.”

Chikaodi knew her man. Once his eyes darkened at a pronouncement he had
gone beyond the pale. Yet she was no pushover, either. This cause
deserved tears of blood.

But Ndu quietly walked out on her.

That evening, looking as haggard as a ragamuffin despite her smart suit
and expertly applied make up, Chikaodi left in a hired car. She left a
heart-wrenching letter for her husband who had gone out. Fortunately
Junior was enjoying the weekend with Ndu’s uncle in another part of
Lagos. When Ndu returned and read the letter the world stopped turning.

Gough and Tani, her manager, had prepared her beforehand. The press had
been full of raving accolades. The headlines were something else: ‘Chi-O
takes Europe by storm!’ ‘Nigeria’s first Oscar in sight?’ ‘Nigerian sets
Netherlands moviedom ablaze!’ ‘Royalty acclaims Chi-O!’ ‘Nollywood
conquers Europe – next stop, America!’

“The crowds are waiting,” Tani had gushed just as they boarded the
Nigeria-bound plane in South Africa. “They love you. Smile for them.
Blow kisses. You’re the new queen.” Even her peers and rivals in
Nollywood were full of unalloyed praise. Gough had done something
unprecedented with her hundred-karat talent and training. He had brought
the travails of a poor African prostitute in Europe home to all races in
peerless images, memorable lines and haunting casting which fit Chikaodi
like her favourite jeans.

But Chikaodi’s heart was full of unshed tears as she enjoyed a minute of
respite in the first class section of the plane. She had always known
that she was doing the right thing, but then, what a price to pay. She
sighed. Ellen Terry, the great 19th century English actress, had
suffered a similar fate when her lover, Godwin, challenged her rise to
stardom. She sighed again, deeply. At least it was better to have loved
and lost than not to have loved at all. The emptiness of the lives of
many of her contemporaries in Nollywood compelled her to be grateful.

A cold comfort, she mused, wiping away silver mists from her eyes. More
like ice cold pain.

Ndu had been resolute, e-mailing her to consider herself as good as
divorced from him. He promised to commence formal divorce proceedings
and advised her to forget Junior.

When she got his mail informing her of his plan to collect his bride
price from her family, she almost boarded the next flight home but Gough
and Tani had talked sense into her.

Then as suddenly as they had begun, the e-mails from Ndu ceased. It was
her sister who wrote her, telling her that Ndu had been involved in a
terrible car accident on the day he was driving to the court to file
divorce papers. A ganja-crazed tanker driver had sent his car off the
bridge. Amazingly he was fished out of the lagoon alive, but badly
injured. The doctors did an excellent job but Ndu was crippled for
life.

Against everyone’s advice Chikaodi had cut short post-shooting and
post-recording formalities to come home.

The human wave that swallowed up the Murtala Muhammed Airport arrival
lounge was only rivalled by the crowd who welcomed the Super Eagles from
Tunisia in 2004. Chikaodi’s legs trembled. The press was in full force.
Cameras went crazy as security men forced open a way for her. The human
sea jostled to see and touch their idol. Seeing that a riot might
develop if she did not acknowledge the crowd, Chikaodi got a powerful
microphone from a willing journalist and addressed her fans.

“Darlings, dalu nu, nagwode, eshe, dooh! I love you all. Please, please,
give me a few days, and then we’ll be together. Thank you, thank you.”

The roar of “Chi-O!” nearly swallowed the drones of planes flying
overhead. But the affection was palpable as the fans made way. Tani and
some guards handed her over to the fierce embrace of Grace, her sister,
and their father.

Once they were safely tucked inside a car speeding away from
the airport, Chikaodi spoke.

“Where is Junior?”

Dad and daughter looked at each other. “He is with Ndu’s uncle,” said
Grace.

“What of Ndu?”

“In the hospital.”

“Take me there now.”

Mr. Nzewuka took a deep breath. “You just got back, ada anyi.”

“So? He’s my reason for coming back. Take me to him.”

Grace sighed. “After what he did? Or tried to do?”

Chikaodi’s head nearly exploded. With a Herculean effort she bit back a
blistering reply. The crackling tension emitting from her
body filled the vehicle. “Dad, Grace, you have one minute to take me to
Ndu, wherever he is, or we’ll be in tomorrow’s papers. I mean it.” And
they knew she meant it.

Grace muttered something unladylike under her breath. Mr. Nzewuka told
the chauffeur to alter course.


Ndu lay in the big, well made bed, looking with unseeing eyes at the
words in his copy of Sefi Atta’s ‘Everything Good Will Come.’ He put it
down on the bedside table and reached for the TV remote control. But
Junior got it first.

“Which channel, daddy?”

“Anyone you like,” he said listlessly. He stared at the pair of useless
things that had once carried him around. Thoughts swam across his mind.
He shut his eyes to blank them out. Seated opposite him, Uncle Obi
noticed the facial contortion.

“Ndu.” His voice was gentle.

“Mm.” He opened his eyes.

Uncle Obi called the little boy. He made him face his father.

“Ndu, think of this boy. For his sake, be strong.”

Tears welled up in Ndu’s eyes. “Oh, God, one life; just one life to
live, and one stupid action to regret forever.”

“Stop this,” said his uncle. His effort to sound stern was as false as a
fraudster’s cheque book.

There was a tap on the door. Uncle Obi looked up. “Must be the doctor.”

“Come in.”

Mr. Nzewuka marched in, closely followed by Grace. Chikaodi brought up the rear.

“Mummy!” Junior’s cry was a high velocity bullet. Chikaodi spread her
arms and the boy jumped in. She swept him off his feet and burst into
tears.

Uncle Obi stifled his sobs with a sigh and a gasp. He looked at
his in-laws. Tears stood in their eyes. Chikaodi gently set Junior down
and turned to Ndu. The world stopped turning as their eyes locked. The
huge night sky fell apart like a torn shroud.

“Ndu,” she whispered. She did not trust her voice.

Ndu could not speak for what seemed to be a century. “Chika,” he
finally whispered.

Chikaodi came around, sat by his side and took his unbandaged left hand.
“Leave us,” she said. Obi looked at his in-laws who shrugged. Everyone
quietly filed out.

“Jesus, you’re back.” Ndu could not believe his eyes. “You are really
back.”

“Yes, always.”

“Can you forgive me?” His eyes spoke words that could have melted the
heart of a Dahomean Amazon.

Chikaodi bent and kissed him fully on the lips. “There, that’s all you
need. Now, dear, forgive yourself.”

Ndu wept like a baby. Even as the tears washed his face he realized that
their marriage had just begun; now, even though he had useless legs,
they would walk together side by side.

Outside, a beautiful wave of golden sunlight took over the sky.




Total word count 3,130


                                GLOSSARY
Oku elu (Igbo) a derisive term for a woman who is too assertive,
unladylike and devoid of traditional feminine modesty.

Nwa afo (Igbo) an authentic Igbo man, one who understands and
appreciates traditional Igbo beliefs, norms and values.

Iba (Igbo) fever, malaria.

Naija (Pidgin English) Nigeria.

Suya (Hausa) meat kebabs.

UI University of Ibadan.

Okpeke (Yoruba,

Pidgin English) attractive damsel.




You dey craze
(Pidgin English) you are mad/crazy.

Dalu nu (Igbo) thank you.

Nagwode (Hausa) thank you.

Eshe (Yoruba) thank you.

Doo (Urhobo) thank you.

Ada anyi (Igbo) our daughter.



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