With Love From Tuscany: by Ola Awonubi

Silence hung heavy in the air between them.

He spoke first, his little eyes like rodents, blinking in the heat. “Ese – is this you?”

She brushed past him, into the coolness of the house. “Godwin, do I have a twin? Could you not even come and welcome me at the airport?”

He stood up and sat back down again. Tried to light a cigar but his movements were shaky and it took several attempts. “Did you not get my message? I was going to come and then I got a phone call from Lagos and got delayed. It is my older brother. He has been rushed to hospital. I had to make some calls to ensure money was in the account to pay the hospital bill.”

She folded her arms across her chest and looked at him.

Godwin scratched his head. “You know our people. They always bombard me with their requests. I try my best to help them when I can.”

“It is well. You didn’t tell me you had got a job.”

Godwin’s voice was quieter. “No. I am trying but it is not easy around here.” He got up and took her suitcase, dragging it behind him.

“It is good that I have been sending money then. I mean how else would your family survive?”

He was silent. Silent like the air around them.

His eyes shifted. The last time she had seen his eyes set at that angle, he had forgotten to tell her that his mother was coming to spend a month with them.

She noted his shirt. New, like his newly acquired pot belly. The furniture in the living room – also brand new.

“One suitcase. That is amazing for a woman. Did you get me those leather shoes I asked for and the perfumes for my mother?”

“What of all the ones I have been sending? You people could have opened a shop with all the gold, leather shoes and designer clothes I have sent home in the past few years.”

She curled her lip in disgust. Her money. Her blood. Her life poured out as a sacrifice for people who did not care for her. She was just an instrument to be used for their advancement. Emptied of her vitality, until she was a dry and empty husk.

He saw her face and sobered.

“So you are not joking? You actually came home empty handed?”

“Godwin, you haven’t even offered me water and all you can do is ask about shoes and shirts! You haven’t seen me in three years. Anybody would think that your love for me disappeared the moment I put my foot inside that plane.”

Godwin’s smile was contrite. “Sorry. Don’t frown like that. You know my love for you is as strong as ever. Haba. Don’t be angry with me Ese my love. Sit down, Make yourself at home . Let me get you a nice cold drink.”

“Water is enough.”

She closed her eyes and sat down on the new richly embroidered three seater settee and stared into the air until he came back and handed her a glass of cold water, which she sipped tentatively.

They spoke. No, he spoke about his new business and the new car that sat proudly outside their house and how the village had changed since so many of its daughters had started going abroad and sending money home. Italy had to be a very good place because it was so easy to make money there. Maybe one day he would go there just to taste what the place was like.

He took her by the hand and led her to the little room at the back of the house. “Come and see your office.”

Ese had never imagined they could have a proper kitchen before and had to adjust herself to the sight of all the modern appliances in their little house. A fridge, cooker and kitchen unit. Just like big people’s houses.

Wasn’t that why she had gone to Italy? So they could live like this?

“No more kerosene stove. Gas cooker. Big fridge.” He opened the fridge and brought out a bottle of Guilder Beer and an orange drink. The fridge was full of assorted bottles of expensive wines and beer.

Maybe something in her silence communicated to him because he looked up.

“Let me get you something from the restaurant down the road?”

She shrugged. “I don’t have much appetite nowadays. The doctor has advised me to get more rest.”

“Of course. Of course. Well, welcome home.” He excused himself and went to the toilet. She headed straight to the bedroom.

Bed. Big. New.

Opened the wardrobe. There were all his suits, shirts, ties and leather shoes. Some still wrapped in their packaging.

It wasn’t as if he ever went anywhere else but the beer parlour and parties. She could not understand why he needed all these clothes.

That was when she spotted something peeking from under the bed. A woman’s shoe.

Bright red with a black bow.

It was not her shoe, and it was badly made. She wondered where the other shoe was. This was local and cheap. She realised that it probably belonged to somebody local, cheap and willing.

There were so many of them around. They bred like rabbits in this town which was amazing on such empty bellies.

She heard his footsteps and kicked the shoe back under the bed.

“See how I have decorated it all nice for you?” He looked at her face, like a child that craved praise.

She looked around at the cream walls and new turquoise curtains. The bed had new blue and white covers and matching plain blue pillowcases with ‘Sweet dreams’ embroidered in uneven letters in silver thread on each pillow.

“Thanks.”

He smiled like a child who had been told that he had passed his exam.

He talked about everything and told her nothing. Did she know that Okada motorbikes had now replaced ordinary bicycles? That the nearby oil refinery had stopped recruiting local labourers and contractors and that Mama John’s daughter had just left her second husband? Was she aware that his mother had the malaria fever so bad that she had to be rushed to Benin Teaching hospital where she had been on drips for two weeks?

His voice buzzed around her head like a demented mosquito searching desperately for a way out of a net.

Are you not happy with this room? Why are you squeezing your face as if your head is hurting you? Are you well? Shall I go and get some food? Is it true that Oyibo people eat food with pepper? Did you miss Nigeria at all?

“Yes. No. Godwin…I’m tired. I want to sleep.”

“Yes of course. Italy is not a village down the road. Get some rest. I will leave you.”

Ese sensed the relief flooding out of him as he closed the door then heard him talking on the phone. She imagined that he was telling Miss or Mrs Red shoe off, for leaving evidence under the bed.

She felt a strong desire to deliver a mighty slap on the prostitute’s cheek.

Prostitute. Mignotta. Prostituta. Puttano

She closed her eyes and laid her heavy head on the cheap silk pillow, wetting it with tears. She doesn’t want to sleep as it is filled with dark memories, the stench of them choke her and make her jump out of bed fighting for breath.

She saw lizards mating on the cracked wall.

Maybe her money had not been enough to continue with Godwin’s ‘renovation’.

30 men a day. Sometimes 50 in order to pay her Madam ground rent for her loco. Her little room. It meant that by the time she had finished paying her and sending money and gifts home to her family, she had barely enough for food, toiletries and clothes. Now it was her body and soul that needed renovation.

Her back started to hurt and she got up, put on some chocolate soufflé powder to brighten her dull face and decided to get dressed and visit her family.

****

Her parents’ house had acquired a new door. It was green. Bright green. It reminded her of a young woman who left three years ago for Italy to work as a nanny.

It was all sorted. The job was there. She would love the children. So well behaved, they said. Money? If she was prepared to work hard, her earning potential was limitless. Empty promises, painting pictures in her head.

Her younger sister Dorcas opened the door and stood like a statue, her mouth open like somebody who had just been slapped.

Ese swallowed down the hurt. “Dorcas? What now? No greeting for your big sister?”

Dorcas looked hesitant. “Welcome Sister. How are you?”

She reluctantly ushered her into the newly refurbished parlour where her parents sat, stiff and silent. Her father nodded at her greeting and asked her how long she was staying. Ese told him she was back for good – to settle down with her husband and start a family. Her mother got up and left the room silently.

Father and first daughter looked at each other.

“Papa. Why didn’t you reply any of my letters or return my calls?”

Silence. Ese saw Dorcas turn to look at her father but he looked away outside to the window where the children played on the dusty streets. All she heard was the tick tong of the big clock echoing in her head. She used to sit watching it whenever she was called into the front room parlour for a telling off or caning. Her eyes floated over the faded family pictures on the wall as she heard her father’s cough.

To her ears, it sounded like the kind of cough a person gives before announcing a person’s death. “There was talk in the village. Your uncle said he was told by one Warri woman that you were selling yourself in Italy.”

Ese’s laugh was strong. She sounded convincing. Even to herself.

“So you just believe any Fabu, any lies now eh?”

Dorcas looked shocked. “Please Sister Ese tell me it is a lie! Please!”

Ese laughed. She laughed so much that tears ran out of her eyes.

“Where did you think all that money to support you people, was coming from?” She felt louder. Bolder. “Don’t tell me you really believed me when I told you I was working as a nanny eh? That Europeans would be ready to pay anyone that kind of money?”

Her mother ran back into the room and put her hands on her head, her feet making strange movements as if she was dancing.   Ese watched her in the detached way people do when they are watching a boring drama. She knew it was impossible for a person to dance and cry at the same time, but she did not have the energy to dry anyone’s tears apart from her own.

She pointed at her pretty younger sister, with her freshly styled hair, and green African print dress with yellow flowers. “You Miss Dorcas. If not for my money would you be able to call yourself a fashion designer? I heard that your business is booming now.”

Dorcas could no longer meet her eyes and left the room.

It was quiet except for the laughter of children outside. Ese marvelled at how laughter could sound so full even when bellies were bloated by more water than food.

She remembered it now. Her mother’s voice soft and low as she urged her and her siblings to drink more water with their meal.

Now everybody belly full. Their bellies are silent.

“So you people are not even going to offer me water?”

Her father picked up his pipe and inhaled. Bluish grey smoke obscured his face so she couldn’t see his expression. “Come back in the evening. Your elder brother will be here. Then we can have a meeting.”

Meeting.

“Meeting about what?”

Ese noticed that her mother’s eyes were red. Red like the shoe under Godwin’s bed. Red like the special nightie she wore when entertaining her clients.

Ese got up slowly. “OK, I understand.”

“Go well o.” Her mother’s voice echoed wistfully as Ese headed to the door.

She could feel their eyes burning a hole into the back of her head. A head that throbbed with the pain of betrayal as she walked out of the door.

A curtain moved as she walked by. An old man stopped to look at her and shook his head. Even a dog saw her coming and barked incessantly until the owner came out of the house.

****

When she got back home, Godwin was sitting on the porch; he welcomed her coolly as he fanned himself with an old newspaper.

“Did you see your family?”

She nodded and went back into the house. He did not follow her, deciding to sit under the shade, sweating in his new shirt, while he continued to pour the contents of another beer into his swollen belly.

There was nothing palatable in the house so she had to go to Mama John’s house at the end of the road. Her steps, despite the heat of the afternoon sun against the back of her neck, were brisk and her bright yellow blouse rubbed against the rash on her back. It had started from the back of her neck and had advanced over the rest of her body like a conquering army.

Sweat trickled down from under her curly brown Rihanna style wig as she passed a group of effusive housewives. One of them had to put the tray of dried fish on her head down, so that she could crane her head as far as she could, to get a good look. Ese was proud of her attire, her dark pink suit complete with gold buttons and matching gold shoes. Gold, Tuscany’s other parting gift to her, hung from her ears.

She realised that since she was coming from abroad it would be expected to look the part, dress up and make some yanga – show herself off to the locals, just for the fleeting sense of satisfaction of watching their mouths gape open in jealous contemplation as they did mental calculations on how much her outfit cost.

“How is abroad?

“You look well. Welcome.”

“You off to church? You look so smart.”

“How is Italy? I see you brought wealth back with you. It is written all over your face.”

She made small talk for some minutes and made her way to Mama John’s make shift ‘Supamarket’. Her shop by European standards was practically meagre. Tins of Bournvita, powdered milk, tinned tomatoes and other provisions sat forlornly on the shelves. A fridge stood in the corner and there was a table outside the shop on which tomatoes and peppers had been arranged in little pyramids.

Mama John jumped up when she saw her, which was no mean feat considering her weight.

“Ese una don land? How are you my daughter?”

Ese curtsied in respect. After all, the woman was the same age as her mother.

“I’m fine.”

The woman’s eyes met hers. There was compassion there and respect. “It is good to see you back.”

Ese smiled. No one had said that since she had returned.

“I want to make small stew for my Oga.” She picked up some tins of Geisha fish in Tomato sauce, some Maggi cubes, some bell chilli peppers, and a packet of imported rice.

She brought out some money and gave it to the older woman who shook her head. “Don’t worry my child. God knows the truth. You were always my favourite in that family.”

Ese thanked Mama John and resolved to come back another time and squeeze some money in her hand.

Mama John watched her go and shook her head.

“Life is wicked.”

****

Ese brought in a plate of rice and fish stew and replenished the beer. By the time her husband had finished the fourth bottle he managed to stagger up and make his way to the bedroom where he collapsed upon the new comfortable big bed.

She waited until he was dead asleep and then took off her clothes and lay down beside him. She knew what to do – was she not a professional?

He groaned. “What is it woman? I’m trying to sleep.”

She whispered sweet things in his ear and turned down the lamp so he wouldn’t see how dry her chest had become, the rash on her back, the hollows in her cheeks and the thighs that were once smooth and plump that were now like brittle sticks.

But she need not have worried. The alcohol had worked. She felt him relax against her and smiled to herself.

Men. Were they not the same all over the world?

****

At first they wondered where she had gone.

Godwin woke up and wondered whether the events of the night had been a dream. Ese had been…. not like the Ese he knew. During those moments he had a brief moment of concern but he had been too drunk to stop things from progressing.

The next morning reality was like a cruel slap in the face.

How had he been so stupid? Surely he should have been more careful. He should not have drunk that much.

He had rolled over and saw that her side of the bed was empty. He got up and called for her but there was no answer. Then he decided that she might have gone to the church for early morning prayers or maybe her parents. It didn’t make sense to him but to him, women were the most difficult creatures to understand out of God’s creation. Ese had been sullen and uncommunicative all day had become a different creature the night before.

He phoned her parents and the rest of her family – but no one had heard or seen her since the day before. A little boy said that he had seen a woman that resembled Ese disappearing out of Abraki early in the morning – on the back of an Okada, showering him with red sand as it wobbled along the rickety road. She had smiled at him and waved.

Her family said they were concerned. That they were worried about her. She didn’t seem herself and although she looked very sophisticated and wore fine clothes she seemed to have lost a lot of weight. They concluded that the shame of living in the village might have proved too much for her and she had gone to Lagos.

They did not expect to hear from her for a long time and it seemed a satisfactory conclusion for the family. Lagos was a big city. Anyone who went there always got swallowed up by city life and made infrequent visits back home. Ese had become an inconvenient embarrassment – one that they wanted to try and dissociate themselves from.

No one in Abraki knew where Ese had gone. It was a mystery. Talk in her hometown was that she had actually died in Italy and that it was her spirit that had come back to say its goodbyes to her family.

****

The night after Ese left, Mama John opened her shop and found out that someone had pushed an envelope containing 5000 Euros under her door. There was no note with it.

She soon heard that Ese had left Abraki. She was upset at Eses departure and wished that her own flesh and blood had given her more support but life had to go on. The next Sunday she went to give thanksgiving in church and her dance was so vigorous that some felt she might pass out, but they managed to settle her in one of the pews and got her an ice cold drink and she was fine after that.

Everything continued in its usual way. Ese’s father decided to take a new wife because the new business was doing well. Her mother took solace in singing songs from the Methodist Hymnal and attending the local Pentecostal church praying that he would repent and divorce his new wife. Ese’s elder brother Paul withdrew his son from the local primary school and put him in a private school in Sadu and his wife opened a beer parlour. Her other brother Clément’s cement business did so well that he relocated to Abuja where the big business was. Months later he was awarded a Chief’s title for his services to the local area. Her sister Dorcas fashion business also did so well that she expanded into two more shops in Warri.

Godwin had a traditional wedding with this young lady called Agnes whom he had been seeing for the past two years. Agnes was a small girl with big ambitions and a love of red shoes. Even though he was twenty years older than her, short and balding – the money he lavished on her and her family was enough to keep her affections.

Agnes was the first person to realise that something was wrong with him. He seemed to be losing weight by the day. It was almost like if the wind blew on him – it would carry him away. He was no longer able to strut around town in his nice designer clothes as they were too big for him. Another source of worry was this perpetual cough. He sounded like a second hand car engine that was only fit for the scrap yard so she nagged him to make an appointment with the Doctor in Sadu.

****

Godwin was shattered.

He did not know how his legs managed to carry him out of the doctor’s office.

He did not go back home to his wife after the doctors prognosis. He went straight to Ese’s parents and gave them his news. Yes it was the illness – the Oga of illnesses, the Chairman of them all and he had only a few months left. Maybe a year. He wanted them to tell him what he was supposed to tell his wife who was now carrying his child.

Ese’s parents did not know what to say.

Her young sister Dorcas burst into tears. What would her customers say if they heard this news? What about her potential in-laws? It was all so embarrassing.

Her mother came running and fell on the floor of the siting room and started to pray.

Her father picked up his pipe.

No one knew what to say to Godwin.

Later they phoned round and called for a family meeting. They were good at having family meetings. Clement was in Abuja and was too busy to come. He felt it was really none of the family’s business.

Was Godwin a small boy? Surely he should have taken care of himself, and as for Ese, it was good she had left the town. Some kinds of shame were too heavy for one family to bear.

Paul the younger brother who had a bit of a soft spot for Ese felt bad about the way the family had behaved but what could he do? He was the youngest and besides, he did not know where his big sister was or how to contact her to see how she was. Maybe it was for the best. What kind of life would she have left anyway?

****

Mama John told everyone who came to her shop that Ese had come back to punish her family for abandoning her when she needed them the most.

Two months later at a church service, the pastor spoke about the evils of parents sending their daughters abroad to work to end up being exploited by wicked foreigners.

The next week another middle aged woman – Mama Susan donated one million Naira to the church fund to repair the roof the missionaries had put in over a hundred years ago. The Pastor was so moved that he prayed for her and her daughter Susan who was working as an au pair in Italy. He also prayed fervently for all the other parents whose children were abroad, working so hard as nannies and domestic workers in order to make sure that their families were well taken care of.

 


Ola Awonubi (@createandwrite) lives in London and has recently had her first book – Love’s Persuasion published by Ankara Press; an imprint of Cassava Press, Abuja, Nigeria. In 2008 her short story The Pink House, won first prize in the National words of colour competition and another short story -The Go- slow Journey, won the first prize in the fiction category for Wasafiri’s International New writing prize 2009. Some of her short stories feature on African writing.com, StoryTime, This Reading Life, TheSiren.co.uk and naijastories.com.

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