WHEN SHE SEES HER WALKING TOWARDS HER, her blonde hair bobbing on her shoulders like an excited child on her father's knees, Oge knows exactly what the blonde woman is going to tell her.
The blonde's lips are smeared with lipstick, as red as tomato puree. She comes close and forces a smile, " mevrouw, can I help you?"
She says, no thank you, she is doing all right on her own, just browsing.
But the woman hangs around anyway, hovering around her like a bad smell that refuses to be shaken off. She is wearing a purple turtle-neck that hugs her neck like it wants to strangle her. Oge cannot stand turtle-necks, she finds them suffocating.
She knows that the blonde does not really want to help her. She can hear her thinking, "Afrikaanse woman, with jeans that look like they come from Wibra and a shirt that is frayed and faded, what can she want in this boutique? What can she afford?"
Oge ignores her and feels a silk dress that looks like a nightie. The woman appears right beside her and without waiting for Oge to ask says, " three hundred euro, mevrouw", her voice comes out sounding like a toothpick being snapped in little pieces. Oge knows that she is making an effort to remain polite and she enjoys it. She wonders for how long she will remain polite.
Oge walks to the opposite end of the air-conditioned shop and runs her hands against a skirt. The woman's bobbed hair brushes the back of her head as she comes and positions herself behind her, offering the price in a weary voice, "three hundred and fifty." Oge wonders if she thinks she cannot read. For Pete's sake, the price is hanging on it in neat dark print.
"I will take that", Oge says, feeling heady, the way her earning power makes her feel.
But the woman smiles in amusement, and pretends like she has not heard her. She is sure that Oge does not have that kind of money to spend on clothes. She offers her the price again, loud and clear, her voice assuming the quality of a metal gong. Oge is already scanning the room for a copy of the skirt. It is brown and hemmed with mauve frills. It reminds her of chocolate ice-cream with sugar sprinklings on top. She remembers the first time she had it and she smiles. She is sure she will look beautiful in it. Inebriated by the sweet memory and the money in her purse, she runs on light feet around the shop scouting for a blouse to go with the skirt. She finds one and disappears into the changing room to try it on. She twirls in front of the mirror in the changing room and smiles at her image.
When she brings out a bundle of notes to pay for her purchase, Ms Blonde Hair smiles at her warmly, a glint of respect in her eyes. She folds up the skirt and the blouse reverentially, her lips moving, like she were saying a prayer and places them with care into the shiny paper bag with the boutique's name written haughtily across its side.
Ms. Blonde Hair handles the bag like a new born baby and with a wide smile (which nevertheless does not reach her eyes), passes the bag over to Oge and wishes her a lovely day. Oge enjoys watching the metamorphosis of Ms Blonde Hair. It makes her almost happy. She is never entirely happy these days, and almost happy is good enough for her.
OGE did not always have money but she had always wanted it. She was not born to parents to whom money was no object. Right from a young age, she was determined to break the chain of misery in which her family wallowed. She envied the smooth skin of the wealthy. The smell of the rich. And she was willing to do anything short of kill and steal to make it. And when opportunity presented itself, she grabbed it with both hands. She shook opportunity's hand and refused to let go.
SHE walks out into the street. The sun is shining but it is as always a sun without warmth. She has to look up at the sky to convince herself that it is there. Back home the sun always shone with an intensity that caused you to squint whenever you were outside. Here, it is like a yellow plastic circle, stuck on a child's drawing of a sky. There is a man walking towards her. He is in a light brown jacket and walks with a slight stoop. There is a poop-scooper peeping from his left pocket. He has a dog in his arms. He holds the dog close to his chest, like a woman would while suckling her brand new baby. But the dog looks far from brand new. It is a dirty dog with black, wiry hair. When they pass beside her, the dog whimpers and the man halts and gives Oge a smile which is not really a smile (it is too sad to be one) and tells her that his dog is sick. He calls the dog his blackie. "Mijn blackie is ziek " he says even though she does not ask, even though she does not know him. His words come out in a croak, as if he has been crying, or drinking. Or both. She gets a look at his face. It looks like a much-used paper bag. There is something in his eyes. It looks like loneliness. It is almost tangible, she feels like she can reach out and touch it. She wonders if he has a family, this stranger who walks around with his sick blackie in his arms. She wonders if he is waiting for blackie to die. She wonders what will happen to him when blackie dies. Will his life snap like a stretched rubber band? Will it break irretrievably and lie forgotten, unclaimed, like the old women who died in the heat wave of France in the summer of 2003? Oge shudders at the thought of growing old in Europe. She wants to grow old the way her grandmother did, with family beside her and children taking it in turns to run errands for her. She returns the old man's smile and says that she wishes Blackie well. It looks as if the man is going to cry but he brings the dog's face up to his and kisses it on its nose. Then, he shuffles off, his feet heavy with sadness.
HER father was a bus driver. He drove one of the buses owned by Chief Mbaka, one of the wealthiest men in Enugu. She remembers with shame how she hid him from her friends, like dirty laundry, for he was one of those men whose poverty you saw permeated every crevice of his body. You saw it in the way his eyes looked humble and blank. You saw it in the way he walked, not daring to step on the ground beneath his feet. Oge did not want to display such naked poverty to the scrutiny of her friends. She remembers how she used to lie awake praying for a new father, a father who was not a visibly poor bus driver and who did not come home every night smelling of ogogoro, the cheap local gin that Mama Friday sold in her restaurant. Mama Friday's was the local meeting place for the men in out neighbourhood. She was legendary for her goat-head nkwobi. Oge overheard her father once tell her mother in an argument that if she made nkwobi as delicious as Mama Friday's for him, he would stay home more often. Her mother had retorted that if he brought home the goat, Mama Friday's food would not hold a candle to hers. Her mother said Mama Friday would go to hell, for selling shot after shot of ogogoro to her father. One day, Oge asked her mother if her father was not responsible for himself. In response, the older woman had slapped her daughter full on the mouth and said she should never talk back to her elders. It did not matter that she was seventeen and curved and had already slept with her boyfriend (of course her mother did not know this) and felt as old as her mother. Her mother said if she ever spoke back to her again, she would slap her teeth out of her mouth, show her that an okra tree never grows taller than its planter. She placed the blame on Mama Friday who sold ogogoro to men and made them forget that they had children at home to bring up. "Mama Friday will fry in Satan's widest and deepest pan" her mother concluded and hissed a long drawn out sigh. This time Oge did not contradict her but quietly nursed her hurting lips.
THERE is a woman walking a child on a leash. The child has dark curly hair that sits in coils across her head. The child cannot be older than four and the leash is tied around her waist. She is trying to break out of the leash but her mother pulls her and says something rapidly to her. The child bursts into a loud wail. Why would a woman chain her child like a dog? Oge asks herself. Quite an illogical world here, she thinks, a world where dogs are carried and children are chained. She asks herself why she is shocked as five years here has numbed her, has made her immune to shocks. At the beginning, every outing provided a new reason for her to exclaim at this strange new world. She still remembers how shock had left her mouth hanging open when her neighbour, a woman as old as her grand-mother, had introduced herself to her as Gina. Back home, older people did not introduce themselves by their first names. She could not bring her heavy tongue to roll out her name without adding "mama" as a mark of respect. Gina, surprised, asked why she called her "mama" and said she was not comfortable with it, Oge was to call her Gina and nothing else.
The first time she saw a couple kissing in public, she had felt shame on their behalf. But then she noticed that they were invisible to the other passengers waiting for the train to Brussels to arrive. Everybody carried on with normalcy, laughing, talking, scowling. No, nothing shocks her anymore in this place. She is getting used to wearing the city. Yesterday when she saw a couple groping each other on a park bench, she simply looked away and buried her head in a copy of Flair she was reading. She no longer feels the urge to walk up to smokers as young as thirteen and tell them they are smoking away their lives and burning their pocket money. She knows better than to walk up to a woman struggling with a crying baby and offer to help. She can wear this new place as well as she wore her old home.
KINGSLEY came into her life unexpectedly like heavy rain in the dry season. One day, her life was normal. The next day, a man stood on her balcony smelling of gasoline and asking for water to wash his hands. He said his car broke down in the neighbourhood and he had been tinkering with it and now his hands were dirty and he had to get to an appointment. She jokingly told him that he would not make a good impression, smelling as if he had robbed a gas station and he laughed and showed her an amazing row of teeth with a gap in the middle. She did not normally joke with strange men and she had a boyfriend she had been dating for three years (since she was sixteen) but the man on her balcony looked harmless. And his wrist watch under all that gas smell looked expensive. Her boyfriend did not have anything expensive. Her boyfriend's father was unknown and his mother sold roast corn and ube in the rainy season. She loved him but she had known that she was passing time with him until someone more prosperous noticed her. The stranger said his name was Kingsley and asked what her name was. When she told him, he said Oge was a beautiful name. The most beautiful name he had ever heard, a name for a goddess. She laughed to show him she thought he was amusing. He winked at her, told her he was visiting from Europe, he was a car dealer and imported cars from Belgium into Lagos. After he had washed his hands, he shook her hand and asked if he could see her again. She took a look at his expensive watch and said yes, of course he could see her whenever he wanted to.
He took her out a few times, to expensive restaurants where she ate pieces of fried chicken and goat peppersoup. He left huge tips for the waiters and never complained that the food was over-priced (for the price he paid for a bowl of peppersoup, she could buy an entire goat). He told of the places he has visited: Belgium and Spain and Italy. They all sounded like one endless party. He said he would like to show her Brussels at night and take her shopping in Barcelona. She broke up with her boyfriend without a lot of guilt. It was painful because she actually did love him, but she was sure she would learn to unlove him with time.
The day she told her mother that Kingsley was making plans to ask her father for permission to marry her, her mother danced around their small sitting-room (which doubled as Oge's bedroom at night) and said her daughter had made her very happy, she was going to be the mother-in-law of an ogalanya, a wealthy man. Oge was happy she was slicing into the chain of poverty which held them in its grasp. She was sawing it off and she would learn to love her new husband even though she had only just met him, she was sure of that.
IT is September and it is cold. If there is anything she misses about her new home, it is warmth. In her first year abroad, she had looked forward to winter, to snow. She looked out of their apartment window every morning to see if it had snowed while she slept at night. When it finally snowed, she enjoyed the snowflakes falling ever so lightly on her head as if she were in a movie.
She remembers scooping up snow off Kingsley's Renault Megane and popping it in her mouth, just to see what winter tasted like. She had expected something different and sweet. Instead, it just tasted bland. Still, it excited her and she took rolls upon rolls of pictures to send home: just she and the snow. Lying in the snow with her legs up in the air. Pictures of her throwing snowballs at the camera laughing a careless laughter. Pictures of her sitting in the snow, with her gloved hands pulling on her woolen cap. Now, the excitement has worn off. She is tired of it and now she yearns for the sun of Enugu.
She gets to the zeshoek and see that the pancake house, Pinnochio, has been re-named to Croque Madame. She hopes it has changed waitresses. Once she went there when it was still called Pinnochio and the short waitress with thick dark curls served her with a grumble. She got upset with Oge because her Flemish was halting, asked her to hurry up and place her order. When Oge ordered, she served her pancakes with no smile and a thump on the table. She had eaten the pancakes while lamenting the fact she did not know enough Flemish to demand to see the manager. She would have liked to complain. She swore never to set foot in there again. Would it have helped if she had complained? Would the waitress have been reprimanded? Oge was not sure. Once when she was accused of shoplifting at the C&A in Turnhout because she had left the shop with a safety tag on the dress she bought still on, (the cashier had forgotten to remove it), the Manager had simply told her that there had recently been a spate of shoplifting by vreemdelingen, foreigners. Oge knew that she deserved an apology but she lacked the proficiency to demand for one. Instead, she chose to boycott the shop in future. Besides the manager had intimidated her with her brown eyes, as hard as marbles.
She was wrong about learning to love Kingsley. Loving somebody was not something one taught oneself to learn. She wished that she could but her heart remained obstinate and would not yield. It was set in its ways and raced whenever she thought of her boyfriend, Joe, the one she had left for Kingsley. At night when she lay beside her husband, she ran her fingers down his spine but it did not give her a shudder, not like it had with Joe.
She could not say she was unhappy in her marriage. There was nothing to be unhappy about. Kingsley did not beat her. He did not begrudge her money. Every month he sent her to the Western Union at the train station with some money to send to her parents.
She could not say that she was exactly happy either. Whenever she looked out the window of their wall-papered apartment and saw couples with happy faces, holding hands in a way that one could not doubt that they were in love, a lump as solid as a stone always rose from somewhere within her to settle in the middle of her chest.
It was at times like those that she cursed the non-pliability of her heart.
Originally published in Muse Apprentice Guild, Fall 2003.
Chika Unigwe official website:
Published book in English:
"On Black Sisters Street: A Novel" at amazon.co.uk
"On Black Sisters Street: A Novel" will be published on April 26, 2011 in the US.