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Gertrude

By Adaobi Nwoye (Nigeria)


 

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Gertrude exchanged pleasantries with her market colleagues as she scurried into her shed. She inspected the bananas that her son, Oche had displayed on the ware table before going to school earlier that morning. Satisfied, she dropped her handbag beside the long bench at the entrance of her stall and deposited her huge behind on a commensurate portion of it. The bench squealed in protest.

            “Buy O,” she beckoned on passersby who were in the market for their different businesses. As usual there was human traffic and her sharp eyes darted back and forth in harmony with her head which turned swiftly each time it perceived a potential customer.
“Fine girl, come now,” she beckoned on a young ebony skinned lady who stood in front of her stall to take a call. Having done with her telephone conversation the lady turned to Gertrude, picking up a bunch of fresh bananas.
“Madam, how much is this?” she asked Gertrude who now stood loyally beside her ware.
“Sixty naira,” Gertrude replied. “Welcome.”
“Ah, it’s costly now,” the lady protested, inspecting it incisively.
“How much do you want to pay?” Gertrude asked her.
“Is it not thirty naira?” she asked as she replaced the bananas on the table.
“Ah! I didn’t even buy at that rate. Pay fifty,” she offered, forcing a smile between her wrinkling face.
“No madam. Take thirty five.”
“Fifty,” Gertrude insisted good-naturedly.
I can’t buy it at that price,” the lady mumbled and walked away. Gertrude scrutinized the bananas and shrugged. “Come and pay forty five,” she reluctantly called after the lady who shook her head as she wiggled away and out of sight. She replaced the bananas and shook her head glumly.
“It’s not your fault,” she muttered under her breath. She replaced her buttocks on the bench, sighed regretfully and once, again recalled how she was once as beautiful as the young lady, with a pool of choices.

Gertrude was the first child and only daughter of a family of five. Her father, a schoolteacher had died early leaving the task of his children’s upbringing solely on their mother who sold fish on the Island. His death had been very devastating for the family. Matthew, though not a rich man, had been a strict disciplinarian. His presence had created a sufficient amount of sanity and decorum in his household and the prospect of walking in his shoes wasn’t something his wife looked forward to. As though things couldn’t be worse, weeks after his death their teenage daughter, Gertrude became a handful. She became rebellious, would wake up when she chose and did chores at her own convenience. She was also lazy, her mother finally had to admit. She had pretended to be diligent when the father lived- cleaning panes, doing dishes, sweeping the house and doing every domestic activity. After his demise it became clear that Matthew’s death was a relief to Gertrude, who in addition to all her other problems had gathered the temerity to talk back at the mother. Her younger brothers were the girls the woman had now. They gave very little trouble, paid attention to their studies and did all the chores that Gertrude did not, effortlessly.
The fish business was lucrative and her mother, a very industrious and enterprising Kalabari woman was very successful.  Providing formal education for her children was in itself not a problem for her. The problem was getting Gertrude to stay in school amidst the regular advances made at her by her teachers. For Gertrude had realized quite early that she was beautiful. And this awareness had been the bane of her many problems, for it had rubbed off on her attitude and spoilt her gravely. In form four she became sexually involved for the first time with Captain, her Math teacher.
It was one man after another thereafter. All the advice given her by her mother concerning her loose living and its repercussion went the way of the biblical grains that fell on rocky ground. The poor woman reprimanded, beat, cried, begged and cursed Gertrude, all without result. When she died prematurely eventually, a lot of people presumed it was out of heart break.
Gertrude’s two brothers went to live with a relation of their mother in Kaduna after their mother’s funeral, where they were to complete their secondary education. Their mother’s demise had been a big blow and their Uncle, Soberekon was of the view that a change of environment would do them good. Gertrude vehemently refused to join them.
The death of her mother launched her into a higher level of promiscuous living. She dropped out of secondary school in form five. The men thronged her home, sometimes engaging themselves in wrestling matches. She went on trips with men, fought wives, got beaten all between ages sixteen and twenty four. Within this period some nice and sincere men proposed marriage and she thought them all too greedy to want her exclusively for themselves.
Several times, she had abortions and treated STDs and was disgraced by men after having been accused of infecting them with venereal diseases.
But one day she looked around and made a scary discovery. Most of her mates had settled down in marriage and given birth. Some had gone on to university, graduated and were gainfully employed. And she had a turning point then, but it was quite late.
 At twenty five, her string of admirers started to diminish and soon she knew the reason. Even she could hardly recognize herself in the mirror. She had taken to bleaching creams and now she could not accurately define her complexion. There was yellow, red and streaks of green, and as she stopped using the creams, maroon. And she looked several years above her age. At twenty six, twenty seven, twenty eight, no suitor and no education. Frustration and desperation set in as her dream of settling down in marriage looked bleak.  She stormed one prayer house after another, seeking for help all without success. Finally, when all hope seemed lost Princewill came along and married her a few days after she turned thirty five. Everyone knew that Princewill was a never do well. But he removed the stigma of everlasting spinsterhood from her when no one would. In her hay days he would not dare to approach her even for direction assuming he were a lost passerby. Her siblings, Bobby and Modestus attended her wedding from Germany, where they had migrated to in search of greener pastures. They were the only dignitaries at the low key event.
The marriage was blessed with two children, Oche and Ufoma. But as expected, her indolent husband would not cater for them. She combed the town for one clerical job or the other, all to no avail. When Bobby sent her money one Christmas she ventured into trading. Bananas seemed to be booming. Starting out was quite rough, especially since she had no prior business experience, but after several serious mistakes she learnt on the job.

 She sighed again and sprang up when another customer came by. This time she sold at a reasonable price but cursed herself for failing to take advice when it mattered.
 “Error is costly,” she remembered her father’s favorite maxim and quickly forgot it as another buyer ambled in.

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