Featured Writer/Artist

Chika Unigwe

 

 

 

  

We here at Ninth Letter are proud to feature Chika Unigwe’s“Opening Eyes” and “Rapu,” excerpts from a work in progress exploring a contemporary fictional world that is all too real: the moral and emotional complexities facing Nigerians who have emigrated to Belgium. The hold of African customs can strengthen or loosen, cynical marriages are made in order to receive a work permit, and patience, desire, love and ambition can twist any well-thought plan into unexpected trouble.  Chika Unigwe, in telling a tale of a small group of Nigerian friends and family who find themselves together in Europe, informs and makes more personal the much larger tale of migration that we see blared from today’s headlines. 

—Philip Graham

 

 

 


Opening Eyes  

The new man was tall and lanky, but in a healthy way, like a well-looked-after cat. He had a fashionable haircut and a thin strip of beard in the middle of his chin. Today, he was visiting with his wife, Rapu, a nervous, small woman with startled eyes and a stutter. She sat at the edge of the sofa as if she were afraid, ready to flee at the slightest sound. She was new. But not in the same way the man Gwachi was. She was new to Europe. He was just new to Belgium and therefore relatively new to the group of men who met regularly at Agu’s to drink and talk. Prosperous had only seen him a few times.

He moved from Germany a few months ago, Agu told Prosperous the first time Gwachi visited with his other wife, his German wife, Elisabet. He said Germany is very hard for black men.

Prosperous raised her eyebrows and asked her husband, Harder than here?  

Yes. Harder for them than Belgium. Can you imagine? Elisabet suggested the move to Turnhout when he said he had heard this place was easier for blacks. She gave up her life in Germany for him. Oyibo women and love! They’d give up everything for the person they love!

But the wife he had with him now and who he brought every time he came afterward was Igbo, like everyone else in the house, even Sule who had an Hausa name and who told Belgians he was from Sierra Leone, but whose real name all the Nigerians knew was Conrad. Rapu was his “sister-wife,” the wife he would introduce to Elisabet and their Belgian friends as his “sister.” His sister-wife did not live with him. She lived with a Nigerian man called Shylock. Whatever his real name was, nobody seemed to know. He had earned his nickname for the exorbitant fees he charged for whatever service he provided, even to his fellow Igbo. Shylock drove an Audi, had a gold tooth, and always wore a beret and dark Ray Bans. In the winter, he wore a long black leather jacket with a furry trim on the hood.

When Rapu and Gwachi left, Agu said to Prosperous, Do you know how much Shylock is charging Gwachi for his wife? Sixty thousand! And they are from the same village. That man loves money too much!

But at least he knows Gwachi won’t be dipping in his pot of soup, Prosperous answered. You remember the story about that Ogwashi man?

The Ogwashi man had been paid a huge amount to “marry” a certain Ogwashi girl whose husband was already in the country but who could not bring her in because he was married to a Belgian woman. The poor man, very much like Gwachi, missed his “real” wife so much he could not wait to bring her in himself once he had got his papers and divorced his white wife. But the Ogwashi man not only took the money, he also took the wife, so that what had started out as an “arrangee” became marriage proper. Neither the Ogwashi girl nor her real husband could do anything about it without getting into trouble. No one in Agu and Prosperous’s circle of friends seemed to know who the Ogwashi man was but his story had become an anecdote, told and retold in their circle to warn each other of the covetous nature of human beings.

But Shylock, whatever else he might be, had an untarnished reputation for honesty and professionalism. If he said he’d sell you his mother, he would, was how he was described. He was also a man with lots of connections. No one knew the exact nature of those connections but they were said to be expansive and useful. Not a nice man but one you wanted if you were after an arrangee marriage. He would know whom you could trust. As it turned out, when Gwachi asked, Shylock said he would go one better than recommending someone. He would do it himself. So Gwachi paid for him to go to Nigeria and marry Rapu. He went to Shylock’s every evening for a few minutes after work to see Rapu. On Sunday afternoons or evenings, he made excuses to Elisabet, and went to see Rapu. It was only then, on Sunday, that he took Rapu out like a proper husband and they went and visited his friends, or drove down to Antwerp where they checked into cheap hotels, and kept an eye on the clock while they made love. It would not do to get Elisabet suspicious.

How long still? Rapu asked every night when he dropped her off at Shylock’s.

Not long now, he said to her each time. Then we can be a proper family.

Wh…Wh…what does m…m…m…my. What does thee…..thee….this wo..wo..wo…woman loo…loo….look like, my hus…hus..husband’s wife? she asked Prosperous one day, her voice low and soft, her eyes like a trapped mouse’s. She was sitting on a kitchen stool, stirring the rice and stew in her plate with a spoon.

I’ve only ever seen her once, Prosperous replied. Gwachi does not go out with her much. He brought her here once. Then, because she knew what this woman, the real wife, wanted to hear, she added, It’s almost as if he were ashamed of her. She’s muscular in a very masculine way. She’s not beautiful. She has a beard like a man’s own. Gwachi should ask her to shave.

Rapu’s lips turned upwards in a smile. Her eyes brightened. Very softly, she said, Thank you. She did not stutter. Then she began to eat, shoveling the rice into her spoon in huge heaps like a starving laborer. There was nothing shy and reserved about her when she ate. She ate like she was on a mission, chewing with determined movements of her jaws, hardly raising her head from the plate until she had emptied the plate.

We…we have a child ba…ba…ba…back home, you know that? she asked Prosperous, as she washed out her plate. We ha…ha..have a child. Si….si..six years old.

Boy or girl?

Boy. Nkonye. She smiled at Prosperous as she said the name.

Where’s he now?

With my, my , my si…si…sister. When Gwa….Gwa…Gwa…When Gwachi’s papers are ready and…and…and..and we can li….live together, we’ll get, we’ll get him. He was one when Gwachi left.

She dried her hands on a kitchen towel and sat down again. First Gwa..Gwa…First he was in…he was in…he was in Lebanon. Then Holland. Then Ger…Germany. Now he says hee…hee…hee…he’s settled. Once he divorces Elisabet, and I divorce Shy…Shylock we’ll be together again. I’m tired of sleeping oooooon the…the…the sofa. My…my neck hurts. Every day. Ann…Another man might have gi…gi…given the woman the bed but…but…but not Shylock. She cracked her knuckles, starting with the little finger on each hand and then working up to the thumb, alternating the hand with each successful crack.

Oh well, Shylock doesn’t joke with business. It’s always strictly business with him. If he gave up his bed for you, he won’t be Shylock. That’s why your husband trusts him. No funny business with him. You know where you stand.

Yes.

*

For two weeks, Gwachi did not come to Prosperous’s. Instead Rapu came with Shylock.

I be…be…begged him to b…to bring me, she told Prosperous. Gwachi and Elisabet ha…have gone to Turkey on holiday. To…to…together. She sounded like she was about to cry or had been crying, Prosperous could not decide which.

She sleeps with my hus…hus…husband every night. She’s got my husband and wha…wha…wha…what have I got? She wrung her hands as she spoke.

In a way, he is her husband too, Prosperous said gently. She wondered if this life was worth the sacrifice they were all making for it. She and Agu. Rapu and Gwachi. Both of them trapped in a marriage they did not want. Their son left behind with an aunt in Nigeria. And Elisabet? She did not want to think of the childish-looking woman with a high laugh whom Gwachi had brought along to theirs once. The woman had mock complained that rather than taking her to Nigeria to see his home country, meet his people, Gwachi was taking her on a round of Nigerian homes in Belgium. It’s not the same you know darling? she had asked, laughing in that high way of hers, kissing him on the nose.

Tell her, Gwachi said, appealing to the room. Tell her how dangerous Nigeria is. It’s not a country to visit. It’s not like Kenya or South Africa where you can go on safaris. Why do you think I left? Ah, tell her about our country!

Prosperous had said nothing, unwilling to be complicit. But the men had complied. They knew what performance was expected of them. They had done it on other occasions. They spoke about kidnappings at gunpoint; of policemen who sold their uniforms and rifles to armed robbers; of a constant power outage and of air that was so thick with the exhaust fumes of rickety old cars that it was impossible to breathe. As they piled one gory story on top of another, Prosperous saw Elisabet’s smile become thinner and thinner and her eyes grow wider and wider. When she shrieked, I never want to go to Nigeria! What a horrible country! Prosperous ran out of the room as if she had been personally affronted. Later, when real terror came to Nigeria—daily bomb explosions in the northeast and abductions of school girls and entire towns being razed—Prosperous would remember the lies these men told and wonder, even though she knew it was irrational, if somehow their lies had birthed these new horrors.

*

When Gwachi returned from Turkey at the end of August, his visits with Rapu continued. He had bought her a small leather purse which Rapu showed off happily. How was your holiday? Prosperous asked him and he complained of how he hated holidays. What is there to do on holiday? I missed my wife, he said, rubbing Rapu’s back. I can’t wait for this damn marriage to be over. White women give too much wahala. Elisabet wanted to see museums. To shop. To walk. Every morning, she dragged me out to walk.

Walk to where? Agu asked, laughing in anticipation of the response.

To nowhere! Just white people’s walk. Hand in hand. Like schoolchildren.

Rapu shook his hand off her back and walked away into the kitchen. Prosperous followed.

You know that he has to do these things, she said to Rapu. Yes. yes. But it’s not easy, my…my sister. He’s my husband. Hee…hee…he’s the father of my son.

How is he?

My son? He’s fine. Every…every…day I talk to him he wants to know whe…whee…when he can come and and…and…join us. I can’t even tell him that his father and I don’t live together. How do I begin to tell him that? Eh, my sister, tell me?

Prosperous felt like holding her, hugging her and telling her that it was only a matter of time.

It’ll be okay, she said.

You know, you know, you know I kept asking him to bring me. Bring me over. B…Bring me I said, I can haan…handle it. My parents were tired. They were tie…tie..tired of answering que…que…questions about the ree…ree…relationship. I was tired of answering questions. People wondered why my husband had left me for so long in Nigeria. There were ma…ma…malicious rumors. They said he had abandoned me. He had fled. Can you ima…ima…imagine the shame, my sister, eh? They laughed behind my back. They…they…spread rumors. So…so my pe…my pe…my parents said he must…must come aaaand get me. Now, I…I…I don’t know.

*

The problem with Gwachi, Agu said, is that he married a good white woman. Elisabet has been so nice to him that he’s finding it hard to just do the deed. The house he’s building in the village, Elisabet bankrolled it. She doesn’t stop him from going out and hanging with his friends like so many oyibo women do.

What a pity, for such a nice woman to be used like this.

Circumstances, Agu said, yawning.

Prosperous did not know how to interpret that. She felt bad for Elisabet, but she felt bad for Rapu too. The only person who seemed to be getting the best of both worlds, she told Agu, was Gwachi.

But what do you want the man to do?

She said nothing at first. Then she said, He could have left Rapu back home until he was ready.

*

The day Rapu told Prosperous that Elisabet was pregnant, she cried. It was the first time Prosperous had ever seen her cry. She had seen her close to tears several times and had imagined for some reason that if she eventually did cry, it would be soft sobs with lots of sniffing. Rapu moaned when she cried.

He wooon’t leave her now, my…my…sister, will he?

Is that what he’s said?

No. No. But…but…but…The words refused to dislodge and she gave up and wept into her palms.

You know Elisabet is pregnant? Prosperous asked Agu after the visitors left, Gwachi walking ahead of Rapu, who dragged her feet like a heavily pregnant woman.

Yes. He told me.

Is he going to leave her with a baby?

And doesn’t Rapu have his child too?

She’s worried. She cried. Poor girl.

Rapu is his wife, is she not? She’s the one recognized back home. She’s got nothing to fear.

It was Prosperous who noticed that Rapu was adding weight. She joked to Gwachi that Shylock was feeding his wife well.

It’s this…this…country, Rapu said. Too…too…many sugary things to…to…to…eat. She took a large bite of the cake Prosperous served and sipped some Coke.

Her eyes had lost their startled look and acquired a certain calmness. When she spoke she no longer wrung her hands or cracked her knuckles. She settled into Prosperous’s sofa as if she owned the house.

She’s becoming a proper madam, Prosperous told Agu.

What do you expect? She’s no longer a Johnny-Just-Come. She has opened eyes.

*

Rapu added weight steadily so that whenever Prosperous saw her she had piled on some more. The weight was spread evenly through her body, as if it had taken a conscious decision to be fair, but Prosperous had not thought she was pregnant until Rapu announced it to her, rubbing her stomach contently with a palm.

And what does Gwachi think of it?

He…he…he is happy, she said, burying her head in her glass of Coke as if she were afraid of looking into Prosperous’s eyes.

Gwachi doesn’t know how he’s going to deal with it, Agu told Prosperous later that night. Two babies coming in the same year. His papers are in order but he thinks it’d be very cruel to leave Elisabet now she’s almost due. She’s given up a lot for him too, you know? He said that her parents were totally against them getting married, you know? She married him against their will and her father is still not talking to her. She hopes that the grandchild will help bring her parents round.

Wahala, Prosperous said. He’s got to find a way to resolve this.

She thought of Elisabet fighting her parents for the man she loved. She thought of her own father and how she could not imagine not ever talking to him. She thought of Rapu and her growing stomach. She thought of Nkonye in Nigeria waiting to join his parents. She did not know who to feel sorry for. Who should she be rooting for? Elisabet or Rapu?

*

In May, as the weather became warmer, Elisabet had her baby. A girl with her father’s nose, bigger than the average baby girl. She was fifty-four inches at birth, Elisabet announced proudly as she handed the baby over to Prosperous to see when she and Agu visited. Guhwashi has been very good with her, she said, splitting Gwachi’s name into three syllables and mispronouncing the “chi.” He hasn’t dropped her once! She laughed loudly.

Ah, me, I’m good with babies, Gwachi responded, getting up to get drinks for Prosperous and Agu.

Yes. Like a pro. You wouldn’t tell that this is his first. He impressed the nurses at the hospital.

Gwachi smiled and kissed her on the forehead. He asked her if she wanted something else to drink, her tea had gone cold.

Prosperous watched Gwachi fuss over Elisabet, holding her hands and kissing her repeatedly on the back of one hand, and she wondered if his exaggerated kindness was to compensate for the fact that he would soon be leaving her. He no longer spent Sunday evenings with Rapu. He had to be on hand, Rapu told Prosperous, to help out with the baby. He…hee…he says once the bay…bay..baby is three months old, he’ll lee…lee…lee…lee…leave her. She sounded like she no longer cared. Poor girl, Prosperous thought. It must be hard on her.

*

One Friday morning in July with a stomach looking like it was about to explode, even though she still had five months to go, Rapu came to visit Prosperous. It was the first time she was coming on a weekday. Agu was out and Rapu looked relieved to hear that.

My….my…sister. I…I…I doo…don’t want you to hear, to…to…to hear this from someone else. So I’ll tell you. My baby’s faaa…ther is…is—not my…my…husband.

Baby’s father? What are you talking about? She thought about the untarnished reputation of Shylock.

She thought about how everyone respected the fact that he was businesslike.

Shylock? She asked, afraid of the answer, already feeling sorry for Rapu whose story would become anecdotal too like the…man’s own. Had he forced her? Raped her? Shy…Shylock? No! Rapu said, laughing in a way Prosperous had never seen her laugh before. I met someone. So now Gwachi can keeeeep his oh…oh…oyibo wife.

Does Gwachi know?

Rapu shook her head. She must have seen something in Properous’s eyes, for she said as if she had been accused, I’m not a…a …bad person, Pro…sper! But I’m ooo…nly human. I tried. Every…Every time I ah…asked Gwachi, When? Ho…how much lon…lon…longer? He…he would tell me, “Soon. I…I don’t wa…ant to be nasty to her. She ha…ha…has Been very good, very good to…very good to me.”

Prosperous said nothing and so Rapu said, I’ll tell…tell him. I just don’t know how. He wo…on’t be too sad my…my…sister. He does not loo…loo…look too unhappy with…with…with…Elisabet.

Telling Prosperous was her trial run for telling Gwachi. Today, I’ll tell him, she said running out as if she feared that if she stayed any longer, she would lose her resolve.

In the moments right after Rapu left, Prosperous was surprised that what she had been most bothered by was the identity of Rapu’s lover. Which of the men who made up the party at her house almost every weekend was responsible for the baby Gwachi thought was his? None of them seemed likely and yet it had to be from that pool. Rapu did not get out much, after all. Where would she have met a man? It was only after that that other thoughts began to take shape and Rapu seemed to her like a cliffhanger heroine in the path of an oncoming train. The train might annihilate her but she might also be pulled to safety on time. It was perhaps for the best, Prosperous thought. Rapu and a new man, Gwachi and his white wife. Rapu would be saved. Their community would remain intact. She heard Agu turn the key in lock and she wondered whether she should tell him or not. She could not remember whether or not Rapu had asked her to keep it a secret.

Agu…

I’ve got news, Agu shouted, his voice jubilant. If he were a dog, Prosperous thought, his tail would be wagging from excitement. Her own news could wait.

What?

Agu dropped into the chair beside her. Gwachi has asked Elisabet for a divorce. Today! He’s on his way now, as we speak, to give Rapu the good news.

Prosperous said nothing. She felt a tiredness take over her body and she surrendered herself completely to it.  

 

Rapu

He came like a whirlwind into my life. Those were Rapu’s exact words to Prosperous. Delivered in a high girlish voice that was not her natural voice. She giggled at the unexpectedness of not just the love or the girlishness of her voice when she spoke of it, but mostly at the way in which she had just expressed it. She, Rapu was not given to drama, had not thought herself capable of the sort of dramatic excitement she had read about in books, but sometimes, she was learning , life threw stuff at one that only the overly dramatic could adequately express. And Hendrik had come like a whirlwind into her life. He had lifted her and spun her so hard and so fast that she had become quite dizzy. She, Rapu, who had thought butterflies in the stomach was a metaphor, now literally felt the flutterings of butterfly wings against her stomach whenever she was with Hendrik. And sometimes when she wasn’t. He’s a great guy, she said to Prosperous. I wish you could meet him!

Prosperous smiled at her, thinking, How this woman has changed, but said nothing. She said instead, Agu doesn’t know where I am. Agu, Prosperous’s husband did not know where she was. He would not think that she would be in a cafe on the Warandestraat with Rapu. The thought both amused and depressed her. That her life had so little excitement in it that going to a cafe with Rapu in the middle of the afternoon was an act of rebellion. Or was that two? Being in a cafe and being with Rapu, the woman who had had made herself a pariah with the group of friends who gathered often at Prosperous and Agu’s almost every weekend. All of them, immigrants from Nigeria. Sometimes, Prosperous thought that “friends” was a loose term, for there were some of them she did not consider friends and yet they were the closest thing to a family that she had here, in this city of strangers. Some of those friends, she would not have a been friends with had they met in Nigeria. They would have moved in different circles. She was a high flier. Did Rapu even have a degree? She could not remember and she did not want to ask now. What did it matter anyway? She, Prosperous, with her university degree and eloquence was reduced to cleaning homes for 80 euros per week. Europe is a leveler, she thought not for the first time, but even in that leveling there was no room for a woman who left her Nigerian husband and “shacked” up with a white man. Especially one who had got her pregnant while she was still somewhat with her husband.

Prosperous raised her glass and took another sip of beer and marveled again at all the ways in which Rapu had changed. She admired the courage it took Rapu to do what she did. She disagreed with Gwachi that Rapu was cold and selfish. To turn her back on everyone and put her own happiness first was more an act of bravery than of selfishness, but was it worth it? Sitting down there opposite Rapu, this new giddy version of Rapu who was living with a man she was not married to, who had given up an entire community for that man, Prosperous tried to convince herself that Rapu had made the wrong choice. You know how white people are, Gwachi said. This man will just use her and dump her. She will come crying to me and I will kick her so hard, she will end up into next year! She’s finished. What sort of woman leaves her husband? The father of her child? Prosperous had nodded while Gwachi vented, unable to say anything, but desperately wanting to. That night, in bed with Agu, she had been quick to assure Agu that had they been in the same position, she would have waited for him. No white man for me, thank you very much. Now, seeing Rapu’s eyes twinkle whenever she talked of her new life, it was difficult not to feel a little bit of envy.

When she got the text from Rapu asking if she wanted to meet up at Cafe Johanness for a drink, Prosperous had accepted immediately. Yes, she would love to meet up. It’s been ages. So much has happened. She was both curious to see post-Gwachi Rapu and to sit in a cafe, “having a drink.” It sounded sufficiently decadent enough for her to feel slightly excited. Agu—as did all of their friends—thought cafes a waste of money, a frivolous pastime they could not indulge in. She had, the day before, walked slowly down Warandetsraat looking for this cafe she had never heard of. Tucked between a Proximus store she had been to several times and a Russian grocery store she had never been in , she felt a sadness that in all her years of passing through this street, she had never noticed the cafe. What else had she been missing? What else remained invisible to her in this city she had lived in for years already?

Rapu glowed. How are things with you? she asked Prosperous, kissing her on the cheeks and then giving her a hug. I’ve missed you! The change was not just in how she looked. Or in how she sounded, softer, more confident, her shyness gone. But gone with the shyness seemed to be her stuttering. Did love cure that too?

Therapy, Rapu said, her eyes shiny, when Prosperous, unable to keep the curiosity at bay, asked. She had learnt to speak slower, to pause, to organize the words in her head before speaking. Sometimes, she laughed, she forgot and the stuttering came back. It’s a daily struggle, she said.

Prosperous envied her the ease with which she motioned to a waiter, as if she had done this several times in this pub or other pubs, and ordered a glass of white “and what are you having, Prosper?” This had been Prosperous’s life in Nigeria, but since moving to Belgium this was her first time in a pub. Her first time just sitting with a friend and having a drink and watching life go by. She was going to tell Rapu this but she suddenly felt embarrassed. And then inexplicably angry so instead, she asked Rapu where things stood, “with your child in Nigeria and all.”

Gwachi’s family had him, Rapu said. For the first time, a sadness crept into her voice. My parents say they will never forgive me for the shame I brought on them. She downed her glass of wine and looked around for the waiter to order another glass. She took a handful of nuts from the bowl in the middle of the table and popped them into her mouth. They are angry, but this is my life, you know? They…they…they ha…ha…have. They have noooooo right to be angry. Her stuttering had come back. She chewed furiously as if to punish the words that would not come out as smoothly as she wished them to.

Of course they would be angry, Prosperous thought. Their daughter left to join her husband in Belgium but ended up with another man. And that man’s child! Knowing what she knew, Prosperous thought that Rapu would be lucky if she ever laid eyes on her son with Gwachi again. In fact, Gwachi had told Prosperous and Agu when he came to visit that he would ensure that Rapu had nothing to do with their child again. Her family, his family, culture, the gods, everyone was on his side he said. The child was living now with one of his brothers in Lagos and as soon as he could, as soon as he found a “decent woman to marry,” he would bring the child over to join him. He should have stuck with his white woman, with Elisabet who sacrificed everything for him and whom he had left so he could be properly married to Rapu. Elisabet was a wonderful wife, he said, blowing into his palms cupped over his mouth as if he were trying to keep warm but Prosperous knew it was to keep from crying. Men do not cry.

How did you meet? You never said, Prosperous now asked Rapu, now sorry to have brought up Rapu’s child. It was petty. Aiming to hurt Rapu. But what for? For having the kind of life, the ease with life, that she envied? She had never thought herself capable of such petty jealousy. The beer soured in her stomach and she swallowed a burp. Rapu ate the last of the nuts, dusted her hands and said, “We bumped into each other at ALDI.” Prosperous imagined a bumping that produced sparks. What she had heard, what Gwachi had told them and what was now spreading through the Nigerian community, was that Rapu had met him on the train from Antwerp and had followed him home. The whore! Gwachi spat out. Even though everyone who knew Rapu, the men and women she had hung out with for the past two years, did not think her capable, even though Shylock with whom she had lived as a “wife” while waiting for Gwachi to leave Elisabet, used to tease Gwachi that “this your Rapu is so quiet, it’s like living like a ghost,” they believed Gwachi.

“I was struggling with my shopping and he offered to help. The rest, as they say, is history,” she finished with a flourish. Her voice was bouncy and light again. She looked like a child, years younger than her thirty-something years. If Prosperous was just meeting her for the first time, she would want to be friends with her. There was a magnetic quality to her happiness. When she was in elementary school, a girl in her class, Ifunanya, had had that quality too. And like moths to light, everyone in the class had gravitated toward Ifunanya, pulled in by a force they could neither understand nor resist.

In the days after Gwachi left his German wife and then Rapu told him that she was moving in with someone else, Gwachi was struck with a fever. Prosperous knew this because Gwachi, unable to stay alone in his flat, had moved in with Agu and Prosperous, taking over their living room couch. At night, when he thought everyone was asleep, they could hear him choking on his tears. His first morning with them, he lay shivering while Prosperous tried to persuade him to have a cup of tea. Of cocoa. Of coffee. What he needs is a shot of brandy, Agu said. The kind of fever Gwachi had, Agu said, needed a jolt which only ogogoro or brandy could cure. He accepted the brandy from Agu. Two shots which went straight to his stomach, he said, and knocked sense into the fever. But the brandy seemed to do the job only for a few hours, after which Gwachi spread out on the couch and guzzled bottle after bottle of cheap beer, only stopping to scream abuses at an absent Rapu. By the fourth day, he had overstayed his welcome but neither Prosperous nor Agu could tell him. No one kicked a man who was already down. It was a relief when he eventually left after a week and a half, taking his presence that had clouded the house with him, leaving a trail of curses on Rapu. He was still paying Shylock for “marrying” Rapu so she could come into the country to join him.

You know Shylock charged me to grant me an uncontested divorce? Rapu told Prosperous. That man really loves money!

It had cost him a lot of money, he complained to anyone who would listen. And to make matters worse, he told his friends gathered in commiseration at Agu’s one weekend while he was still there recovering from his strange fever, Elisabet was really good to me. I could have had a happy life with her! But it was too late. He had broken up with Elisabet, asked her already for a divorce.

You didn't tell her you and Rapu had a history in Nigeria, did you? Someone, Godwin maybe, asked, the irritation in his voice barely concealed.

Of course not. What do you take me for?

Godwin had his own wife of convenience. If Tine, his wife , who was friendly with Elisabet , knew what the arrangement was between Rapu and Godwin, she would begin to suspect him too and who knew where that might lead. At the moment, she was harassing him daily to take her to Nigeria to visit his people. He had no intention of doing so, of course. His mother and his sisters knew she was just his oyibo wife, the woman through whom he would get his papers. There was no need to spend money on a vacation in Nigeria so that Tine could meet them. Besides, he did not want any more attachment than was necessary.

I miss you all, Rapu said again. There was something wistful in her voice and Prosperous understood it. They had no one else in this country but each other. How many times had she herself complained of having to host their friends almost every week, cooking jollof rice and moi moi and pepper soup as if she were having a party, yet knowing that she would not have it any other way. The loneliness of this country would consume her if she did not have this community of fellow Nigerians, this fellowship that gathered at hers often, complimenting her on her food, her husband, her life, making it easy to forget that she had had a different kind of life. Forgetting was maybe not the word she wanted. Bearable was more it. The gatherings made the experience bearable. For all of them. She saw it in the eyes of every single one of her friends when they got together and laughed in all the ways this country they were living in was different from back home. They propped up each other’s dreams that someday they would go home. Go back to Nigeria and begin a different life. A better life. Or pick up whatever good life they had left behind. She felt sorry for Rapu, who no longer had that network. Rapu who did not have support back home either. Rapu, who must begin to make new friends, form new alliances. But no matter how bad she felt for Rapu, she could not invite her back into the fold. In fact, she knew that she could not afford to be seen with Rapu. Tainted by association, she would lose friends like Rapu had. She had to save herself too. This country had a way of swallowing people whole. She thought of Conrad, the Nigerian man suspected of killing himself.

To you, she lifted her glass to Rapu. To many, many years of happiness. It was a prayer, she recognized, that was for her as much as it was a wish for Rapu.

 

______

Chika Unigwe was born in Enugu, Enugu State, Nigeria. She is the author of four novels, including On Black Sisters Street (2009, 2011 Jonathan Cape, UK and Random House NY) and Night Dancer (Jonathan Cape, 2012). Her short stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Guernica, Aeon, and many other journals. Her works have been translated into several languages.  A recipient of several awards and fellowships, she is a Bonderman Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Brown University.

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.