A long line of death and women: by Nkem Oyaghire

The day I died started like every other day. I woke up with the guilt I had been carrying around. It was there when I went to bed and was up before me. Anger was also present that day. 

I had planned this for an entire week. The details of the plan had been gone over with a fine tooth comb. My clothes had been laid out, down to my underwear. When you plan to embarrass yourself in public the finer details are what set you apart from other people who embarrass themselves every other day. I was going for “I am mad”, but only on days when I am provoked. 

I come from a long line of death and women. So does everyone. But in my family, death comes early on the coattails of avoidable events. My mother, her mother and her mother’s mother. Three women of strange beauty died of the same thing. 

When I left my house that morning I was prepared for battle. All roads led to Ogba. To a company that had a funny-sounding name. Every day it was the same thing, a different person with the same monotonous tone at the other end of the phone. Even as my world fell apart, I could be sure that sometime between the hours of one and two in the afternoon I would get a call. “Hello my name is “insert the name of bored loan collector”, I am calling you from Best Lending. Is this Mr Ajao?” and I had to say the same thing every day, “Mr Ajao is not here”. This usually was followed by some silence that lasted for an average of six seconds. I knew because I had made a game of it. No one ever went past the 6-second mark. The silence was always followed by a tirade of words that were clearly being read from a script. 

“When he comes back tell him that his loan of ₦36,000 is long overdue. He has been owing for 9 months now.” 

Mr. Ajao was my mother’s husband. She met him when I was 10. They got married when I was twenty. 

The wedding was a simple affair in our compound in Ikotun. We had gotten a canopy from the church down the street and borrowed their chairs, sound system and pastor. Mr. Ajao refused to enter a church, so my mother put to use her greatest skill, persuasion and begged the pastor to come to our house. Gods only do your bidding when you make sacrifices. In the absence of a lamb or her first son, Pastor Festus accepted 10k on behalf of his God. 

For as long as I can remember it was just me and her. She was alone before she met my father and after he saw that her belly was becoming fatter, not in the way that was attractive to him he knew it was time to leave. Six of the ten years we were alone was spent with questions. I was one of those children who was interested in where I came from, with little regard for where I was going. Of other families in our compound, we were the odd ones. There was Mama Chisom with her drunk husband whom she yelled at for all to hear from the 2nd floor of the house, Aunty Caro and Uncle Benji lived in the house on the ground floor, and Pastor Okon and his quiet wife lived on the first floor. Even in school, conversations about people’s homes usually started with “my mummy and daddy.” All around me was evidence that grownups came in pairs. Being my mother’s pair was strange to me. Where was her grownup? Then one day Mr. Ajao was here. 

My journey to Ogba was without trouble. All the trouble that could happen was going on in my head. I kept worrying that I would have to fight. Fighting was one of the few things I enjoyed. Lashing out at all the ways the world made me angry used to be easy for me but these days, my anger had started to leak from my body. Only to appear in very violent dreams. All the stories I had heard of Microfinance banks were not good. I had no other choice. I had to go there. The man they were looking for was missing. I did not want anybody to come and start looking for him. The number he had given them was now mine, as was every other thing he owned. The last time they called me was last week, I asked them for their office address. I had to explain that Mr Ajao was not around. He was never coming back. 

Mr. Ajao was not a handsome man, he had a fat nose and eyes that were too close to each other. He smelled like an old cupboard that was lined with damp newspapers and he talked while he ate. The only thing he liked more than the sound of his voice was that my mother liked him. 

It did not matter that he made my mother happy. I hated him. He hated me too. 

By the time I could form words, I needed to know who my mother’s people were, where she came from and why she was alone. The more pressing question of the many that I had in my head was about the absence of the second half of my creation. I learned early that it took two people to make one person, so I would always ask, “Where is my daddy”. My mother was good at many things, deflection was one of them and while I had the same anger that she had, I came with a brand of curiosity that was new to her, she turned my questions into fights or games. When I got angry she would get angrier. When my curiosity threatened to ruin her evening, she would concoct games to distract me. Push and pull we went, playing a game where I served the same ball and she responded in beautiful manoeuvres. It usually happened at night when we were done for the day and we settled into the quiet comfort of the little life we had. I would annihilate the peace with the same missile I had used the previous night, with a version of the same question. Her refusal to tell me who or where he was, was infuriating. It was during these years my anger started to grow. 

The problem was that she really did not know. He had gone like the sun on a rainy day, with no warning, just clouds followed by a disappearance. 

In the absence of answers on my father, I slid to questions on her father. In a family where mothers lead tragic solitary lives and fathers are usually absent, she was just like me. A girl who had no knowledge of her father. 

When I got to Ogba, it had started to rain. The rain had been offering warnings of its arrival. The office was off College Road, and the keke driver from Allen Junction told me to take a bike to Sonmori Comprehensive School, the office I was looking for would be on the left.

They met at my mother’s office. Mr Ajao was a cleaner and my mother was a receptionist. A match made in heaven. Where she had anger, persuasion and beauty, he had laziness and a fat nose. I did not understand why he made her so happy. As an adult, I have come to realize that it was most likely the sex. If that was really the case, it was the only thing he was good for. 

It also happened to be the same thing that was killing the women in my family. Each of them died of a broken heart that was tied to the sexual pleasure they got from men whose only offerings were orgasms and the infrequent support that the rest of the world denied them. 

On one of those nights, I perused my mother’s past with the meticulousness of a scientist and the peskiness of a cockroach. She finally gave in and told me who her mother was. They were the same person, just born 24 years apart. Where one was loud, the other was quiet. She was abrasive and the other persuasive. “People used to call us twins” to which I said with the mind of an eight-year-old, “but was she not taller than you?” 

Then she told me how she died.

There are many reasons why men leave, you cannot bind the feet of a man who has decided the world owns his heart. You should never let such men in your house, and if they find a way to get in, do not offer them a chair or worse of all, a pillow. The women in my family did not have the mind to remember any of this. They forgot that when you give a man your heart, it is for rent, he should never own it. With reckless abandon and the giddiness of teenage girls, they absorbed their men. For no price, they placed their hearts at the feet of these men. When my mother’s father left, her mother slowly started to lose her life. One day, less than a year after the last time she had seen her husband, she died in her sleep. 

In the case of my mother, she was lucky to escape the first attempt on her life. Death by my father. I was her saving grace. She had to live for me. This was until she met Mr. Ajao. She had the silly idea to hold on to him and his ugly nose for as long as she could. The best way she thought possible was through marriage. The women in my family all died of the same thing and my mother keeping to family tradition started to dig her grave the day she breathed life into that idea. 

One day while I slept in the place I had been relegated to after he took my space in our one-bedroom BQ, I heard her cry “But you talk say you love. Na like this you dey show love? How woman go dey beg you make you marry am, you no get shame?” On and on she went, while he stayed completely silent. 

She nagged, she got angry, she pleaded, and she did everything until one day he said yes. 

The night my mother told me how her mother died, I silently promised that it would end, not with me, but with her. 

My mother paid for the ceremony. That was the only time she threw a party. It was a simple shoddy affair. The kind you would expect from a woman who worked in the service industry and a man who for some reason, never had money. That day I did not sleep at home. I had looked at the path of the women before me and decided that I would only be with men who I did not like. I was spending time with a boy with whom the only thing we had in common was we both liked me. 

Three years after they got married, my mother caught Mr Ajao with the plantain seller down the road. They were on the floor in the sitting room, on the chair that I slept on, almost like they could not wait to get to the room. The next day my mother could not get out of bed. His fat nose begged and begged and begged. “It was the devil”, he said, but that is not what my mother saw. She did not see the devil with the plantain seller down the road in her sitting room, it was the man she begged to marry her. 

She yes to his pleas and because he was not gone, she started to heal, slowly. 

The next time the devil visited, I was the one that caught him. I had started working in a school, teaching Literature. The school was a street away, and any time I had to eat or use the toilet I would come back home. Mr Ajao who had long been sacked, forgot this detail. 

I heard them before I saw them. He did look like the devil to me. 

The first thought in my head was “why”, not at his betrayal but at her return. From where I was standing, there was nothing he was offering. It was easy to excuse my mother’s behaviour. The plantain seller was new. She had only come here a year ago. What was inside Mr. Ajao that drew all these women? He knew that I could not be reasoned with. What I did not expect was my mother’s disbelief. Her heart was still healing, there was no way she was going back to the pain that she had struggled to leave. I, her original pair, had to be a liar, that was the choice that sat better in her chest. 

That day I decided to take matters into my own hands. 

When my mother finally died, it was not from the devil’s cheating, that never stopped. It was from the same thing that killed her mother. The disappearance of their grownup. One day she got back from a vigil and he was not there. She waited for a day, which turned into a week. Then she too started to disappear. Her descent was quicker than I expected, in 2 months she was dead. 

I buried my mother yesterday and I am yet to cry. My guilt won’t let me. 

The rain finally stopped. When I got to the office, I found out that I did not need to embarrass myself. I had planned my outfit for nothing. They believed that Mr Ajao was missing like it was normal for their lenders to stop existing. The person who was attending to me seemed too young to have a serious job. She had looked up from her laptop where she had been typing faster than seemed possible and was saying “We sometimes have bad loans, so

this is not a problem. We will work on clearing the loan. I am sorry for your loss” That was not the loss I was sorry about. All my plans for a fight had been destroyed. 

I did not hear the car coming, because I was thinking of how long it would take for anyone to find Mr. Ajao. The night he went missing, I begged Mr. Ajao to help me get something from the compound behind our house. The area was overrun with weeds and the occasional vegetable. He was the only one who knew the edible ones. 

I do not know why he obliged, it was late in the day. Maybe it was guilt or he was tired of our enmity and hoped this would make it easier for me to forgive him. I can’t remember why I followed him or how the stone got into my hand. I remember hitting him in the back of his head many times until the only thing that was left breathing was me. Even as he lay there with parts of him on me, I still could not see the thing inside him that drew these women. 

I want to think I hid him well, but his big nose can be seen from a mile away, if they ever find him that would be the first thing they see.