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Angelica sat as still as a painting, hands in her lap, knees pressed together, wishing she hadn't worn her nightdress but her pleated sweater. Chief had been ranting about his Skill Acquisition Centre that would be the pride of the village.
"She'll make a dutiful wife," he said. His eyes flicked from her parents' face to her chest as he began talking about his need for a second wife. His first wife had only female children.
"My wife has brought her up god-fearing," her father said. "Nne, is it not so?"
"Yes, oo. The Lord's doing," her mother said.
At first Angelica was elated that she could now pursue her dream of being a fashion designer at the Centre. But as she listened to this stupid old man describing her body, as if it were a piece of textile being measured out, her delight soured. He said she'd the exact body for "bearing a son". Her hips were rounded and her calves firm. Pregnancy would fit her as perfectly as earrings.
Why doesn't he smile? Angelica wondered. Is he afraid that it will highlight the tiny pockmarks on his taffeta face? Even on his coronation day he had set his face like frozen mackerel.
"Look at her chest." Chief spread out his palms.
Her parents swung their heads at her. Angelica focused her attention on the way Chief's mouth moved as he chewed kola nut: it made her think of someone kneading garri.
"Full to suckle a king," he added.
Her parents smiled. It puzzled Angelica that no man noticed how squat she looked. Like a heavy sow. They readily saw her motherly breasts standing out, big and quite full for a girl of fifteen.
"Chief, God will bless you," her mother said.
"Amen!" her father said.
Angelica scratched her itching scalp. She would cease plaiting her hair and wear braids or weave-on when she finally made it to the capital. She'd no longer use pomade that stank of burnt palm nuts, but perfumed hair cream. She yawned as Chief wrapped up his boast. As for her, she wasn't interested even if he brought heaven down to their farm. She believed she was an outsider desperate to escape before the millstone of quotidian chores suffocated her.
"Are you sure you don't want some oil bean?" her mother asked again.
Chief said no, thank you. Angelica smiled at him as he shook hands with her father.
When Chief limped out, her mother danced into the room. Angelica rolled out her mat, remembering Style & Design, the magazine with smooth pages of girls in bewitching outfits. If only her mother could differentiate between a fashion designer and a seamstress, half of her problems would go away. But her mother thought both involved making and mending blouses.
"He has his heart on you, oo!" her mother exclaimed.
Angelica stretched out on the mat. "Let him look for his age mate," she said.
"You should be glad. Not that you can pass your exams, oo."
"Why can't he smile?"
"What do you mean?"
"His face saddens me," Angelica said.
"Dislike him, oo," her mother said. "But his pockets are full." She stamped out of the room, without shutting the door.
Angelica stood up and shoved the door with a foot. Lay back on the mat, brooding. One night she'd seen herself creating patterns no one had ever conceived, blending silk and adire; chiffon and Ankara; tulle and Batik.
"God, please," she prayed, wishing she could just disappear from this crawling village and its sickly smells of fermented cassava and old age.
The September sun prickled her neck as she balanced the bundle of firewood on her head. Trudging out of the dirt road, she spotted Chinelo on a motorbike, clutching a backpack between her legs. The cyclist slowed down because of the pothole in front. Before he could speed up, Angelica raised her voice. Chinelo turned her head.
Angelica let the bundle clatter to the ground. She tucked the pad under her armpit and shouted, "Girl!"
Chinelo slid off and took a fifty-naira note and slapped it in the palm of the cyclist. She slung the backpack over her shoulder. The girls ran into each other's arms, then pulled back an inch. The pad fell down.
"Girl, you are shining," Angelica said.
"Baby, you aren't looking bad yourself," Chinelo said.
"You are home?"
"I want to give that man some pocket money."
"Yes, he's been sick."
"He thought I'd beg for food because..." Chinelo frowned. "That's past tense. So you're still training to be a headmistress?"
Angelica picked up the pad. She replied that secondary school had since become a nightmare. Exams brought poor results: she was not troubled, anyway, because her scissor-sharp mind was always producing captivating designs that would fit the slim, the fat, the tall and the short.
Chinelo laid a hand on her shoulder. "Baby, you are a child of the future. Come to the city."
"Is it possible?"
"I'll soon buy a car before Christmas."
"Eziokwu?" Angelica gnashed her teeth. "I'm finished in this village. Finished," she said.
Chinelo grinned and told her that she had the right body. She only needed the backbone for a sales girl. Angelica ran her fingers along her spine, then asked her if she'd sell girls for a living.
"You are even lucky a girl resigned just last week," Chinelo replied in a serious tone that impressed Angelica with a picture of a drained girl stepping out of her boring world into another that would both electrify and shock her. She had only visited Owerri at sunset, to deliver a message to her father's cousin, and left before sunrise the next day. Now the prospect loomed so near it was daunting; so vivid it was unreal.
The first few nights she couldn't sleep well, even though Chinelo had given her a room with a toilet and bathroom. Angelica had to tweak her ear to make sure she wasn't dreaming. "Girl, you are now in the town. Behave," Chinelo had said. When she went out, Angelica hopped around the room. Then traced the length of the thick mattress, the blanket dotted with red and yellow-breasted parrots and rosebush, and squealed. Ran her fingers across the wine-red rug, thinking if anyone had considered making a dress with a fabric this thick and sensuous; this velvety.
But the designs she now saw in her dreams were horrible - an old woman with a mouth as toothless as a cave laughing at her because her breasts had turned stumps; of a man sucking out her breasts until they oozed out like marrows. One night, she sat in bed reading Psalm 23 when Chinelo asked if she now wanted to be a nun.
Even the row she had with her father sometimes billowed into her dreams.
"Your brain can't even hold water. Eh, you dress like a wet vulture," her father said, seething, because his daughter had insisted on going to the city to look for admission.
"Did you go to university yourself?" she had shot back, glancing down at her skirt and blouse.
Her father slapped his head with both hands. In his fury, she expected him to beat her to porridge. But he did not. Although, the few times he'd hit her, she kept a face of bone.
Remembering this drama, Angelica sat up in the bed. The room glowed poorly, because of the hazy purple bulb hanging in the ceiling. The mustiness of cigarette smoke and masculine odour from a man called Kings, with nostrils like a horse's, who had slept over in Chinelo's room the night before, still saturated her room.
Angelica squinted at the wall clock. Past three. She started thinking about how to raise the fees required for the Geraldine School of Fashion & Design she'd enquired about. Tuition, use of sewing machines, etc, added up to twenty thousand naira - what her father earned monthly, as a tools operator in a lumber company.
"Let me introduce you to my boss," Chinelo once suggested. "Madam Politics has connections here and there."
Why can't Chinelo understand? They'd grown up together, fetched water and wood together, but they did not have the same destiny! Angelica didn't want to be a sales girl, even though Chinelo's skin was fair and soap-smooth; she attracted men like bees; lived in a two-bedroom flat with the floors of the bathroom and toilet tiled and blue like the Oguta Lake; had a wardrobe full of expensive clothing and shoes; and owned a fridge stocked with juices, fruits, and iced water.
Angelica scratched her hair. "My father thinks I am crazy." She wondered if he wasn't right as she called to mind the afternoon she and her friend went to the market and sighted the man dressed in tatters digging into a potpourri of festering rubbish. Chinelo said, "Dream for too long and you run wacky." The city is for hustlers, people who can fit within the toughest frame. Not dreamers, who hope God would appear and expand the frame for them, she'd said.
Angelica rubbed her forefinger on the rug and licked it as a vow that she'd become a woman whose exciting designs would cram boutiques and shops.
She heard him but bowed her head. She was smiling for the first time since she began work as a sales girl in Madam Politics' bar. Chinelo had advised she wear the friendliest smile possible, but Angelica knew keeping a face as scrawled as Chief's was the best way to fend off detractors.
"He says you are arrogant," Chinelo told Angelica.
The young man often sat alone in a corner of the room sipping Gulder. He never spoke to her until now she caught him whispering to Chinelo. He wore his usual saccharine fragrance she wished she could pluck from the warm air. Roll it between her fingers. The perfume made her think of palm wine; yet, it filled her with a hint of nervousness that if she stood long in his presence she'd dream away.
She spoke in her dialect that the man was a dog. Chinelo giggled. She replied that Angelica might suffer heart attack with the clinical method she put on in dispensing duties; a sales girl was simple and natural, not thorny and affected like the catwalk girls Angelica often yapped about.
"So I should smile at every dog that shakes his tail, sister?" she asked Chinelo.
"You will soon become Madam Medusa."
Angelica repeated "Arrogant" in her head, and glanced at the man again as she picked up an empty beer bottle.
"Bring a table outside. Four chairs," Madam Politics said, a woman whose age you could not guess because, although her skin looked nourished and compact, her face suggested the tell-tale wrinkles of over-ripe pawpaw.
Angelica arranged two pairs of chairs in a circle, then brought out a plastic table, and laid out the table mats. Three men in flowing brocade kaftans and Madam Politics sat down. Angelica took the orders: Guinness and isi-ewu.
"Don't forget toothpicks. Serviettes," Madam Politics added.
Chinelo met her in the bar as she scurried past saying: "That's Felix?"
Angelica set the chopped goat heads in wooden bowls down on the table. Then she placed a small basin of water each on the feet of the table. She folded the serviettes, and kept a jar of Morning Fresh on the table.
Some moments later, the young man locked eyes with Angelica before he shuffled out of the barroom. She wanted to ask him what the name of his perfume was; she'd like to get one for herself. But she decided against it.
Madam Politics handed her a flask of chicken pepper soup. She pointed at the man in lichen-green brocade, who needed her to warm the broth for him because he lived by himself in a guest house.
"Aunty, it's late," Angelica said.
"Bush girl, I know."
"How will I get back home?"
"Don't look for a taxi in the midnight. Or try anything clever. If anything - anything - happens," Madam Politics said, wagging a finger, "I will break your backbone."
Angelica took the flask, looked across at the man who had already sat in his Benz, and wished a truck would crash into him. The man tooted his horn. Madam Politics patted Angelica on the shoulder. "Go, go!" she said.
Bent over a table, pretending to rub out a stain, Chinelo said, "He's a businessman, baby, lucky you," to Angelica as she marched out towards the car.
The man pulled his kaftan over his head and hung it on a nail on the wall. He plopped into the settee and told her to forget the soup. She noticed how exquisite the brown damask curtains seemed, with the light gold voile trimmings arched over and flailing at the sides. She wanted to touch it, but caught him staring. That instant she despised Madam Politics who made her accompany a man with a forehead like a gorilla's because he bought her a gold necklace in Dubai as birthday gift, a week ago. The loose folds around his belly had frightened her as though she'd seen a python; when his hand had flapped towards her breast, she had spilled the juice he offered her into his face. Madam Politics had almost slapped her but held herself.
"Sir, where can I keep your pepper soup?" Angelica asked, cuddling the flask.
Grinning, he patted a side of the settee, and crooked a finger at her. "I might get hungry from watching you," his voice rang like something filtered through an amplifier. Rich, echo-laden.
Angelica avoided gaping at the hairs on his chest that reminded her of the tawny down of a lion, and his belly-button which was just as round as it was peculiarly small. She sat down beside him.
"How old are you?"
"Seventeen, Sir," she lied.
"You look so mature to be twenty," he said.
Using the remote, he turned the TV on. The face of a white man filled the screen. "Bush this. Bush that. Who cares about 9/11?" he said and searched another channel. Black girls in expressive dresses gyrated across the screen, breasts dangling in bras and bottoms shuddering in minis. "Fine girl, what's your choice of drink?"
Angelica wanted to go home and plan her life. Her fingers jerked as he dropped a hand on her thigh and said, "Let's try something, a mix of brandy and juice?" Then he glided over to a cabinet of assorted drinks.
Angelica glanced at the dancing girls as he handed her a glass and sat next to her, crossing his legs. Their outfits are too bright; I can make them slighter, less expressive, but still meaningful, she thought. She furrowed her brow as he took a sip and remembered how a classmate had gone to a New Yam Festival in a neighboring village. Some boys had ground hemp and, using a syringe, injected it into a strawberry drink. The girl discovered semen between her legs when she came to, and her father ignited an uproar in the village when he petitioned the five boys at a shrine.
"Drink," he said. She gazed into her glass then put it to her lips in such a slow, watchful way that forced a crinkly laugh from his throat. The drink dribbled in the glass, almost syrupy. "Why, you are afraid?"
She sipped finally. Her hand flew to her mouth as she hiccupped. He slapped her gently on the back, then rubbed her spine. She put the glass on the side table. "It... tastes like coconut," she said, giggling.
He rubbed his chin, leaning back. "Amarula and brandy," he said.
Angelica watched him kick off his trousers and noticed how short his torso seemed. The limb was strikingly longer. She found this funny, but could not laugh. In his yellow pin-stripe shorts, he hurried towards the bathroom. She wondered why men always wanted to jump her, was it the same way with other girls?
She remembered the first time. Three years ago. She was twelve. Ken had led her to an uncompleted building while the sun beamed tomato-red. He made her lie on the floor, although she knew she was supposed to - because her class girls often whispered about it. But she'd given him an energetic push that sent him reeling across the floor when she saw the elastic contortions of his face, fearing that he had become epileptic as he panted and quaked on top of her.
His footsteps made her body jerk and she saw Felix smiling at her with a towel wrapped around his waist. "You aren't drinking it," he said.
Angelica picked up her glass. "Sorry sir."
He sat down. "You should have a bath too."
She stared at him, thinking: How would you feel if I jam this glass in your groin? This time around, Madam Politics would keep to her threats; unlike the time she slapped a drunk who had grabbed her bum. Madam Politics got wind of it the next day, barked that she'd crush her brain into breadfruit, if she tried it again.
"Are we going to sleep in one bed?" she asked.
He coughed. "You are beautiful," he said.
Gulping down her drink, Angelica swore that she would find a way to get back at Madam Politics, but for now she'd lie beneath this man. Inert like a trunk.
"Forget all this talk about fashion designing."
"That's what I want to do."
"You're too young to keep dreaming, baby," Chinelo said.
"Girl, am I not too young to allow men to empty themselves into me?" Angelica said.
"Here, no one cares about what you wish to become. Make the money first. Waste it on your dreams afterwards."
Angelica brought out her notebook, thumbed through the pages scrawled with sketches she'd already drawn. "I am tired. So tired."
Chinelo smoothed her pleated skirt. Stretched her arms. Then twirled in front of the mirror. "Because you act raw every time a man touches you. Act bold."
"I didn't come to Owerri to act bold for men."
Chinelo narrated how she wanted to train as a nurse, but couldn't pass any of the exams. She met a doctor who told her that he'd assist her to get into the General Hospital, even help her process some nursing admissions in America. She needed a quiet place she could study, so she left her aunt's place at Works Road. He sheltered her in his Boys' Quarters, gave her money. Brought her books on medicine. He didn't have any girlfriend so most nights they slept together.
"Why did you not stay?" Angelica said, crossly, and flung the notebook on the floor.
"How much did I have then?" Chinelo sat down. She soon sparred with the doctor, then one evening she returned from her job search; she saw her bag of clothing on the veranda. He had travelled, the security men said. "I wished I'd put rat poison in his drink," she mused, regretfully.
Then one day Chinelo saw a vacancy. Madam Politics looked at her, ran a hand over her backside, then smiled, and helped her secure a room in a shack, until she raised enough money to rent a one-bedroom.
"That's the brief of my life," Chinelo said, closing her eyes for a moment. "If that man who calls himself my father was sensible enough, I would have become a nurse."
Angelica remembered the face of Chinelo's father. Warped like an old leather bag. The widower loved pissing in the gutter with his trousers falling down his twine-like waist. Chinelo's mother had died of elephantiasis when she was barely five. A few persons said she must have stepped on juju in her farm and her limbs had turned elephant-size. No medicine man could cure her; she died wailing in her room while her husband got consumed by alcohol. Chinelo had acted out a fierce drama with her father, some years ago. When she came back one evening from where she worked in a drug store and found out he'd squandered her earnings, she had pushed him down, and then nobody saw her until last year.
Angelica was glad that her own father did not drink. He was only brainless; he believed money was more important than his family. She recalled how he had clutched his shorts when she told him that Chief could build a stadium in the village, and she still wouldn't marry a bullfrog!
"It's just God," Chinelo said. She slung her handbag over her shoulder, then got up. "I might not come back this evening." She spun round at the door. "I'm cool?" she asked.
Angelica replied, "Why don't you rest today?" Madam Politics had offered the girls a day off because she was a member of the funeral committee of a late senator.
"I have a target. If I fold my arms, will it materialize?"
"It doesn't matter how hard or long you work. God settles everybody in the end."
"Pastor Angelica!" Chinelo said. "Well, if you continue sleeping like an expectant woman, your breasts will fall."
Angelica lunged at her but paused from running into the door.
Later in bed, flipping through a magazine with girls in backless tops and taut skirts, she calculated her savings for the past two months. Almost fifteen thousand, thanks to the tips from some drinkers. Five thousand more and she'd register at Geraldine. Though she knew that for some time now the sales girl routine left her feeling dog-tired whenever she came back home. She climbed out of the bed as she heard someone rapping on the door. "Onye?" she asked.
"It is me." She was the female student who lived downstairs, wearing short braids with flaxen ends, with a voice that sounded like a pigeon's coo.
Angelica opened the door. The girl was leaning against the frame.
"Hi," she cooed.
"Hello," Angelica answered.
"I see you are pleased." She sauntered in, and Angelica thought she had bow legs, but realized that it was some sort of fancy gait.
"May I sit down?"
Angelica shut the door and sat down in the opposite chair, noticing the girl's shaved eyebrows penciled thick and black.
"Your sister has great taste; of course she dates men only," the girl cooed, scanning the room. "I've been meaning to talk to you."
Angelica listened as the girl complimented her attitude, then said that she'd never noticed her with any man since she moved into the building. She assumed the girl was implying that she was inexperienced: a plain rural girl. The girl moved over to her side. She draped an arm over her shoulder. "I've been watching you. You're different," the girl's voice charmed Angelica like music; she listened on, dumbly. "You and I don't like men. Men are selfish. Let's care for each other." She stroked Angelica's cheek with the back of her hand.
Angelica twisted her head sideways, shoved the girl backwards.
"Tough, I like that," the girl said, giggling.
"Leave this place," Angelica said, embarrassed.
"Some other time then." The girl strolled out of the room.
Madness, Angelica thought, clicking her fingers.
In the evocative quiet of the room, curled beneath the blanket, Angelica realized that her friend had no female friends. She hoped that Chinelo wouldn't fall into the gang of ritual murderers who now thrived like vipers and made wealth from selling human parts. That night she dreamt about a sun whose texture was satin and the rays were frills made of organza.
"I always felt you were arrogant. Wouldn't have come to your Madam's place again, if you'd refused me," he said, biting off a piece of his hamburger.
She focused on cutting up the greasy drumstick with a knife. It was tricky, so she picked it up, with her thumb and forefinger, slanted it to her open mouth, and drew a bite.
"You only act up to confuse people. I've watched you." He sipped his Mountain Dew.
"From your precious corner," she said.
"Bad girl, you knew and played with my feelings." He took a toothpick and stabbed at an onion ring. "I bled every night," he whispered.
She raised an eyebrow.
"You think I'm lying?"
She shook her head, remembering Chinelo had said he fitted the picture of a man who read in the candlelight. "Did you get those words from a text book?" she asked.
He chuckled. He tossed the toothpick out of the window. "You have a pink tongue, I like it," he said, and her nipples tingled. She reached for her Maltina.
Silence filled their table where they sat under the awning of an eatery. His eyes rested on her lips as Angelica munched meat. She had pitied him when he held her wrist, two days ago, as she neared the bar kitchen. Call me Ted, he'd told her. Then he begged, "Let me buy you snacks." After work, he escorted her to the junction where she boarded a taxi.
She knew he liked her, so she had sacrificed the church service to eat out with him, being Sunday - while she'd complained to Chinelo that since her sojourn in the city she'd lost her sense of godliness.
He glanced at his watch. "Feels like Cinderella," he said, wiping his mouth with the serviette.
"Me?" Angelica asked.
He told her about a young girl maltreated by her stepmother, but a godmother brought her to the man of her dreams - a prince, young and charming and rich!
"I am now Cinderella?" she said.
"No, but I feel tormented like the prince."
"Am I that mean?"
"You made me want to cry many a night," he said.
"Cry, cry baby," she sang.
He took her hand and pressed it against his cheek. Her buttocks throbbed as she imagined her mother's fond reaction when she would meet Ted.
The sky stood out like a lace, sequined with stars. The smell of noodles wafted around their table. She was aware of some nameless sensation leaching into her bones, suffusing her mind with a kind of dreaminess, casting an effervescent glow over her skin, thawing her cares, and she believed that this man could love her so, to buy her a Singer sewing machine.
He dropped her off. "Let me sleep well, my beautiful princess," he said as she slid out of his Bluebird.
"What did Cin-der-ella do?" she asked.
Ted stuck out his head. "Kissed him."
She looked around. Only a handful of girls sat in the balcony upstairs, while others lounged outside. The breeze rustled the voices in the corridor. No light in her room, which meant Angelica would sleep alone in the apartment, again.
"You're acting up, darling," he said, motioning her to his side.
Angelica bent forward, longing to feel his breath on her lips, but she withdrew and skipped upstairs. At the window, she peeked out as the car sped into the night. Then she kicked off her shoes and, laughing, tossed her weight into the bed.
"You are glistening young lady."
"Thank you, Aunty."
The bar stank of codfish and fried oil. Madam Politics leaned over in her chair. "Come here, young madam. You are dating a Reverend Father?" she said.
"Aunty, that's abomination," Angelica said.
For the past few weeks almost everybody she met praised her sudden radiance. Ted had told her one night as they lay in bed that she was more beautiful than Cinderella. If height wasn't a factor in beauty pageants she would be crowned the next Miss Nigeria. And she'd wished she were tall!
"Your boyfriend is really pampering you," Chinelo said behind her.
Angelica had never felt so animate, so well-liked as the glow burned brighter in her breasts.
A soldier, who bragged that he had fought in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and was rewarded with a cache of diamonds, stopped her as she cleared away the leftovers. He said she smelled as delicious as barbecued pork. She felt insulted, but thanked him with a smile.
Ted had bought her a whisky-fragrant perfume with its bottle shaped like a woman's thigh. He also got her a clingy blouse with stretchy leggings and suede heels. "You've to dress like Naomi Campbell," he mentioned.
"You will kill me with names," she said, rubbing his nose against hers. "Yesterday, I was Cinderella. Today, I'm Campbell. Tomorrow, I will be Chocolate." Ted had turned her life into a magic. Most times when they sat together she wished she'd known him earlier.
In the bar, she took orders with smiles as luxuriant as plants in rainy season. She sashayed when she bore a tray packed with drinks or soups in her hands. Madam Politics and the other sales girls kept staring at her. Some men started asking for her address.
"I need a watch," she told a man, the Chairman of a local council. He had the mud skin of an albino, but robust, and two bodyguards hovered behind him, like zombies. His driver brought a black case festooned with pink ribbons the next day. When she tore it open, her heart swelled. A silver watch.
He invited her for a party shortly afterwards. She and Chinelo sat in the back seat of his Peugeot 306.
Angelica stared at Chinelo.
"I am so grateful to you," Angelica said.
"Why?" Chinelo asked.
"For all you've done."
Chinelo shrugged. "Let's enjoy now. We will get married soon. Life won't always be this exciting, this free."
Angelica stared out at the hawkers calling their wares and the motorcyclists weaving between cars.
"Your luck has started shining," Chinelo said.
"It's so unbelievable," Angelica said.
"That's life, baby."
"You made it possible."
"Wait till we hit the village this Christmas," Chinelo said.
"I can already see my father's face," Angelica said and told Chinelo about Chief.
"Has he started walking well?" Chinelo asked.
Chief had an accident some years ago, which almost crippled him.
"That bullfrog, will he ever walk normal again," Angelica said.
It was not the kind of party they expected. They had a screaming crowd in mind. But here in the living room, spacious and chilly, with teal leather settees, the ambience was controlled, the music soft and stimulating. Guests comprised more females than males.
"Here's my VIP," the Chairman announced, drawing Angelica into his arms.
"Good evening, sir," Angelica said. She noticed his Adam's apple for the first time.
"Who's this beautiful friend?" He also hugged Chinelo.
"Meet Chinelo, my cousin," Angelica said.
The three of them sat down in a settee. Two stewards, mid-twenties, in white and black trousers, with a black bow tie to match, flitted around.
"You've cornered the both to your side, Honorable," said a man clad in a grey tee-shirt with D & G embossed on it. He had a sharp, straight moustache like whiskers.
"Nwanna, meet my lovelies. Angelica and Chinelo," the Chairman said, mirthfully. "This man will become the next Speaker - Barrister Nebo."
The Barrister shook hands with the two girls. Then, he slipped next to Chinelo. "Let me get you something to drink, pretty?" he said.
The Chairman gestured towards a decorated table laden with exotic drinks and flavourful foods. As the foursome ate, drank, chatted, Angelica noted that the clock on the wall indicated past ten. The Chairman saw her. "Ladies do not fuss. Any of the drivers can take you home safely, tomorrow, before cockcrow." His grin somewhat comforted Angelica, who sat back, and crossed her legs.
The guests disappeared upstairs, one by one, as if timed. The Barrister whispered to Chinelo. They both got up.
"Honourable. Permit Chinelo and I to look at the rooms," said the Barrister.
"This is democracy," the Chairman said. They all laughed. He slipped an arm round her waist, and asked Angelica what she wanted. She gazed into his eyes, and began talking about a bright hall with girls bent over machines reeling out stylish dresses while boutiques queued up to cart away her collections.
Ted was sitting on the boot of his car as she alighted from the BMW. The Soldier had dropped her off. She'd started dating him, not because he'd given her a necklace of shiny stone beads, but because she felt more protected having him around.
"Hello," she said, strolling up to Ted.
He jumped down. "I can't take this anymore," he said.
"You didn't tell me you were coming."
"I don't have to."
"No need shouting," Angelica said. "I've been at the bar."
Standing menacingly close to her, he said, "We're supposed to meet here. Or in my place."
"I told you Madam Politics is contesting for Councillorship," she said.
He gripped her shoulder. "She might as well contest for a seat in hell!"
Angelica pulled free. "That's my Madam."
"You have changed, Angelica." His voice sounded like a child's.
I wonder what kind of husband you'll make, spoiling for a fight in the street, she thought, holding his hand, and they both climbed the stairs to her room. She was a bit surprised to see Chinelo coming out of the kitchen.
"Hi Ted," Chinelo said.
"Hello. Long time," he said and sat slouched on the sofa.
"I hope you aren't eating?" Chinelo turned to Angelica.
"I might," Angelica replied, sniffed. "What's cooking?"
"I'm having pains here," Chinelo said, pressing her abdomen, "as if someone is yanking my insides."
Angelica suddenly realized that there was a leanness to her friend's face, and a pastiness in her skin tone. Like the way peeled yam looked when soaked overnight.
"Are you watching weight?" she asked.
Chinelo huffed, and told her she'd added more flesh than befitted a young woman. And her breasts seemed full-size.
"They've always been BIG."
"And you look ghostly."
Chinelo lowered her face. She lurched back into the kitchen. Angelica caught Ted scowling at her and signalled him to her room. He sat on the bed while she took off her clothing. She left her panties on and sat on his lap.
"What has come over you?" he asked.
Smiling, Angelica held his fingers tenderly in her palms. Somehow, it occurred to her that she'd never marry him, even if he begged from now till Judgment Day.
Angelica hugged herself as the woman dressed in white lab coat told her it wasn't malaria; she had a two-month-old foetus inside her. Chinelo was lying listless on the couch, swathed in a blanket, wheezing when she got home. The room reeked of mouldy leaves and cigarette ash. She walked past her without saying hello, and dropped on the bed. She cupped a hand over her mouth, trying to shut out the palpitation of her heart echoing strangely in her ears.
She stood in front of the mirror. Brought out a breast, peered at it. She squeezed it, then glanced down at her stomach. She knew she had been experiencing a sort of queasiness, but had dismissed it as the tedium of her job. She knew, for some time, a potash-like taste clung to her tongue. Immediately, she picked up her handbag, raced out of the room. In the street, she straddled behind a motorcyclist that took her straight to Ted's residence. The door opened at once, when she knocked.
"Hi Angelica," he said, kissing her strong on her lips.
She felt the weight of a trembling smile on her face and slowly wound her arms around his neck. The door banged as he gave it a kick. They swayed into the nearest sofa
"Thinking of coming to your place," he said. "We can get something to eat outside." He got up, but she held his wrist, tugged him back to his seat. He lifted her chin with a thumb. "Is it Madam Politics?" he asked.
She saw blurry patterns on the oriental carpet.
"Tell me, dear, what is it?"
"I'm pregnant - " she stuttered.
"You are...?" He sprang to his feet. "Who told you?"
She clasped her knees. "I thought it was typhoid. I didn't know that -"
"You missed your period."
"The chemist on my street suggested I went for a test. The lady told me -"
"A quack, I suppose."
She sidled up to him. "I don't know what to do," she said.
He backed away from her and paced the room. "Remove it," he said.
"Then keep it."
She crossed her arms under her chest. "I am confused," she whispered.
"What should I do?"
"Can't we think about it?"
He glanced at his watch and said, "Let me check on you later," and pulled the door open. "Go home and rest."
She placed a hand on her brow. "I want to rest here."
"What about Chinelo?"
"She no longer lives with me."
"She chickened out on you?"
Angelica wanted to tell him that Chinelo, who would never caress the butt of a cigarette, now smoked like an addict. Instead, she said, "She has packed most of her things."
"Interesting," he said.
"You are the one."
He craned his head forward. "What did you just say?"
He strode over and gestured towards the door. "Get out."
"No..." she cried, struggling with him, hitting his hands. But he shoved her out. She wheeled round to face him, and the door slammed. She sank to the floor and fastened a shaky hand over her mouth.
Her face was cast in a stubborn shade as she sat sprawled in her seat, drumming her fingers on the table. Angelica stood before her, while Sir Warrior blared over the rumble of voices and laughter, the clatter of cutleries in the bar.
"I hate repeating myself," Madam Politics said. Her hand swept over the length of her body, dramatically. "Look at me, I use protection."
Angelica felt wobbly. She couldn't ascertain which of her male friends hadn't used condom on her. She really didn't like it, particularly when it nearly slipped through her vagina a few times. She found it shocking that Madam Politics was firing her, simply because she revealed she was heavy.
"Madam, how is business?" said a man who had just walked in, wielding a fluffy fan in his right hand which he slapped on his thigh as he took a vacant table.
Madam Politics smiled. "Nze, nno. Business is good," she said and called out a name. A gawky girl waddled out. Madam Politics pushed her to one side. "I will remove your ears since you are deaf. Stop blocking my view with your matchstick body." She pointed conspicuously to the man.
The girl darted off like a deer. Angelica almost lay prostrate before Madam Politics. "Please. Aunty, don't send me away," she cried.
"Pregnant girls are bad business, they bring ill luck." She narrowed her eyes at Angelica away. "Thank your God you even have a child. Some rich men will kill to have a baby of their own." Madam Politics jerked her thumb up. One of the girls tapped Angelica on the shoulder. Angelica glanced up at the girl, sniffled, and stumbled out.
She sat on the chair gazing at the greying white squares of the ceiling. The room was dreary and cold, stripped of its filling furnishing. "I won't need these again," Chinelo had said, in a voice that sounded husk-dry. Angelica would have liked to buy some items from her, but she needed as much money as she could save if she'd keep the baby.
Three weeks, without any friend. Those men who used to gather around her like puppies had abandoned her. She put a hand on the bulge on her belly, rubbing it. Now Ted had disowned it, who knows whether the Chairman, or the Soldier can accept it?
She thought she was lucky in some way, unlike Chinelo - who must have drunk something in one of her male friend's house. Something vile that was gnawing away her skin, pulling out most of her hair by the roots. Killing her bit by bit. Chinelo could have even visited the native doctor - since she refused going to the hospital - often advertised on TV who claimed he could cure all ailments and curses, both local and international.
Angelica brought out her most favourite photograph in which she wore a half-parting hair-do, halterneck and jeans, and posed with her lips parted invitingly. She sighed, then crushed it in her palm, wondering how she could rid herself of the baby.
The landlady banged on the door. Angelica pushed herself off the chair towards the door. The landlady swished past her into the room, ignoring Angelica's greetings.
"So it's true," the woman said, nodding. "Your sister has disappeared. I've informed those students about renovating the entire building."
"How does it concern me?" Angelica asked.
"Everybody has to vacate."
"You are asking me?" The landlady told her that she'd be serving a notice formally in a week's time. On the other hand, if Angelica could make an advance payment of two years' rent, plus tenancy agreement of fifty thousand and a non-refundable caution fee of fifty thousand naira, she would be allowed to stay on while renovation continued in other rooms.
Angelica scratched her navel, too bewildered to speak. She shut the door as the landlady marched to the next room, shouting names. Chinelo had told her that Owerri people were fond of exploiting non-indigenes, citing all sorts of rubbish reasons. Just like in Port Harcourt, every landlord wanted to build estates with your money. Angelica tried to work out how much she had in her savings account. But her mind screamed that the landlady was the devil!
Cautiously, she sank into the chair. She would rent out the other room to any student who was ready to pay the sum. Suddenly, images of Chinelo's sixteen-year-old body came alive in her mind. The body, stretched out and dried. Hands like wood left in the rain for days, with veins sticking out.
Her head thumped as Angelica tried to make out reasons why her friend didn't confide in her; instead, Chinelo had bottled up her feelings.
Angelica dipped a finger into her mouth, to stifle the emotion that nudged from within her chest up to her throat. But her stomach whipped out her curdled food on to the floor before she could run to the toilet.
Resting his elbows on the Formica counter, the chemist explained the risk that accompanied wrong medications. Angelica sat on the bench behind the door, terribly upset at how little she knew about Ted, and how little he knew about her. He'd never probed her for any personal details; she never bothered. Only once did he carelessly remark that he was from Egbema, a lethargic oil-producing community neglected both by Shell and the government.
The chemist was speaking to her, but she was hearing Madam Politics' voice. See what the stupid old woman had driven her into. Angelica now understood the full meaning of a sales girl; a term as flowery as a chauffeur. Sales girl indeed, when in fact their bodies were fodder for swine - those moneyed men who wasted time with Madam Politics, yet would never marry her.
The chemist cleared his throat. Angelica gazed at him and asked if he knew some other way - besides the pills he'd given her. He described how a doctor would pull the infant's feet with tongs, and suck its brains out until the head turned into a mess. Scraping out her canal, he said; she might never "warm" a child in her womb anymore. She felt thistles in her arms as she paid him and hailed a motorbike.
The glass shook in her hand as her mind ballooned with grisly images of baby corpses. The room appeared to spin round and round. Angelica shut her eyes tight, yet more images whirled faster than the room. She spilled the crumpled pills across the floor, mumbling, "No, no, no," and flinging the cushions in all directions.
Gasping, she took out her notebook. Without considering how long it took her to come up with the sketches, she tore the pages. She held her hands up, and the pieces wafted to the floor. Then she ran into the bathroom, stood under the shower, and turned the faucet on. She started to sponge between her legs, so hard she felt fire searing through her skin. She glared at her reflection in the mirror.
"Someone has to accept this baby," she breathed out, feeling suddenly calm, as if the water had infused her with rare strength.
Dressed in a white viscose gown, she boarded a taxi to the local government secretariat.
"Good afternoon, Aunty," she said.
The secretary eyed her, then said, "Oh, what's your name again?" She arched her brow. "You look... healthy."
An elderly man in george dress and a gangling boy sat in the woody-smelling lounge, staring at Angelica as she took a seat. The secretary told her that the Chairman had been conferred with a JP and he was in a jolly mood. This bit of news tickled Angelica; she realized that she'd never felt so fretful and thrilled at the same time. The door to the Chairman's office opened. A tall knobby-nosed man strode out laughing. As he moved past the secretary, he winked at Angelica.
"Quick. Go in," the secretary said, with a frantic gesture.
Angelica skittered into the room. "Chairman," she said.
His Adam's apple bobbed up and down as he thrust out his arms and said, "My gracious! Where have you been?"
"I've been ill," Angelica said, flying into his embrace. "I'm heavy," she added, carelessly.
She felt his arms turn frigid before he withdrew them to his side. He leaned back in his chair. She wished the glimmer in his eyes hadn't turned to ash. The ensuing silence made her limbs tremble.
"Sir, I don't know what to do," Angelica said.
The Chairman picked up a pen, tapped it on the desk. "You don't know what to do? Big girl like you?" he asked. He tapped the side of his head with the pen. "Is there no brain in your head? Angelica, I'm astounded that a girl like you can let this happen." He stared at a file. "Wait outside."
Angelica wanted to explode in front of him, but she staggered out of the office. Sat for an interminable moment in the lounge, her mind tumbling. Someone touched her elbow; she turned. The hefty bodyguard stood next to her.
"Chairman said I should drop you home," he said, his voice scratchy. He handed her a brown envelope. She took it. He led her to a Honda car. She slid into the back seat.
"Girls get missing. Some are found lifeless on roadsides. No one cares. We all respect my Chairman," the man spoke into the rear view mirror, watching Angelica.
I wish I could have seen your Chairman and spit into his red face, Angelica thought. She creased the envelope in her palm, thankful though that he had at least given her some money. She glanced away from the blade-sharp grin on the man's face, wishing he'd drive into a pole.
That night she wished she had a gun. She'd seen a Berretta pistol; the Soldier had showed Madam Politics when she indicated interest in owning one. A gun...
Who would she kill first? She would kill all the men who removed her panties and drove over her like a tractor! She would also kill Madam Politics, then the landlady. Maybe Chief. Had it not been for his stupid liking for her she wouldn't have disappeared from the village unplanned. She might start with him first; Ted would come next. But finding a gun was not as easy as finding abortion pills. She bit her fingernails and coaxed herself to sleep.
The banging startled her. She almost bumped her head against the bedstead. She blinked as sunlight streamed into the room from the windows and cast lopsided triangles on the floor. Angelica felt a bitter taste in her tongue and her throat was itching. She opened the door, and tottered away to the chair. The landlady stomped into the room. Angelica fell quiet as the woman stood in front of her, said, "I've not heard from you."
"What is it?" Angelica said, scratching her knee.
"House lady, I am not feeling fine!"
The woman looked appalled. "You will not feel fine. I know. We all know. You're carrying someone's child," she said. She mentioned something about excess food eventually forcing one's anus open.
Angelica stopped scratching her knee. "We know you killed your husband because of his property."
"God forbid," the landlady said. She balled her fist on her hip. "I can throw you out like trash."
Angelica leaped up. "You will have to kill me, too."
The landlady retreated out of the room saying, "Pack out. Go stay in a brothel, go!" slapping her mouth lightly, and hooting.
Sweat drenched Angelica at once. Even her mother who gave birth to her would never abuse her this way. She beat her chest twice, full of anger. She'd fetch a gallon of petrol. And watch the building sputter in flames! But no sooner had she considered that thought than she fell down, and began sobbing.
"You think God will forgive me?" Chinelo asked, lying on the mattress. Her face looked like a dried-up tuber.
"You'll be fine," Angelica said, sitting on a stool. She felt as if a plastic bag was pulled over her head. The room was almost airless, stinking of stale urine and damp clothes. The windows were slightly opened.
Chinelo regarded Angelica as though she'd said something stupid. Then a croaky sound came out of her bony chest when she tried to laugh. "Next time, bring me some cigarettes."
"I know a Pastor. They say he performs miracles."
"What I need is just a cigarette to burn out the mess in my body," Chinelo snapped. "I wish I could pass this on to my father."
"Pass what on to your father?" Angelica asked.
"This thing!" Chinelo's voice rattled like pebbles in a can. "I want him to suffer for abandoning me - for forcing me out onto the streets!" And she broke into a long, frightful cough. Angelica ran to her side and managed to rub her back, but Chinelo hit her hand away. "Anyhow, I've spread it around. Generously too," she said, after a while.
"What is it you spread generously?" Angelica asked, sitting back.
"Are you blind?"
Something, like bile, ripped open and filled Angelica's mouth with its bitterness. "You need to lie down..." she said.
"And die," Chinelo added.
As Angelica got home, her father was busy throwing out her belongings. She rushed forward to gather them and he pounced on her.
"And take that bastard of yours out of my house!" he screamed. "Shameless fool."
She crumpled down. He would never get over the fact that no dowry was coming to him now, because she'd become 'rotten mango' - a woman who had a child out of wedlock, whom no man considered good enough for marriage.
Her father stopped hitting her, baffled to see her crying: because she normally withheld the tears or shouted back at him. He walked away.
Her mother stalked out of the room with her grandchild. She dropped it in Angelica's arms. "If only you'd married Chief," she said, sucking her teeth, then shambled away.
Angelica laid her two-month-old girl across her legs, face down. Remembering a lullaby, she began to rock the baby.
In the distance the sky showed indigo. No stars yet. One could sew sequins on the hem of the sky, she thought. She still had some good money, anyhow. She wiped her face with her knuckles. She glanced around - wishing she hadn't destroyed her notebook.
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