Friday, July 25, 2014

Spring by Ethan Regal

Ethan Regal tells the tragic story of a girl from rural Nigeria trying to make her way in the world.

Perched on my bed, I stare at the window, at the china blue sky, the scattered streaks of clouds floating by. Outside, everything is coming alive. The flowers are beginning to blossom, the leaves are growing back on trees. Everything is new again, except me. Outside these walls, the world is moving on without me.

Seated in this room, I travel back to many years ago, to the time when I lived with my parents in a village in Nigeria. We slept under a thatched roof, a house made of mud. My father climbed palm trees for a living, providing the village with fresh palm wine, and my mother looked after me and my older brother. We didn't have much to feed on but as a child I remember being very happy. Perhaps I was naïve. The less you know is always better. I ran around in dirty underwear, playing with the other kids.

As I grew older, things changed. My brother worked as a farmer and my mother sold peppers and tomatoes in the market. They could barely afford our education. My parents knew we'd never have the opportunity to be rich without an education so they did what seemed like the best thing to do. They gave me away to a family friend. Mr and Mrs Igwe were affluent enough to raise me properly. You could tell from their gold accessories and expensive matching batik attire. The agreement was that they'd fund my education if I did some household chores and ran some errands.

It pained me to leave my parents but my mother assured me it was the right thing to do. She told me that these people would look after me. She told me that I'd be successful and I shouldn't forget to come back for them. I nodded at her words, my cheeks stained with tears. I will never forget that day. The smile my mother wore on her face radiated with sheer ebullience.

The Igwe family brought me to Lagos. The moment we passed the gate of their house, a tremor ran down my spine. An enormous feeling of exuberance washed over me and I knew my life would never be the same. They owned a big white house, two storeys high, surrounded by tall barbed wire white fences. In their compound were three luxurious cars. They had two children, Adamma and Nnamdi, who were much younger than me.

For the first two weeks, I was treated like their kid, except I did chores and ran errands and I never ate on the dining table with them. Just as they promised my parents, they sent me to school. Everything was great until the third week. Suddenly, Mrs Igwe began yelling at me for no reason. She became very bitter over nothing.

I suspected her husband must have been having an affair. Something was seriously wrong. She was mean without any cause. Even her children treated me belligerently. They called me names and insulted me. Mrs Igwe would hit me if she found me sleeping, if she found a stain on the table, if I looked her in the eyes while she yelled at me. She made sure I cleaned the house over and over without having time to study. She stopped me from attending school. What seemed like my heaven suddenly became hell.

When I turned sixteen, Mr Igwe began to stare at me differently. Whenever I served his meal on the dining table, I felt his eyes linger on my skin. Even the way he smiled when he said thank you was different. Mrs Igwe noticed this and it made her hate me more. She began hitting me just because she felt like it. Smacking her hands against my back, she'd say, "Your parents sent you to steal my husband." Kicking my belly while I laid on the ground, she'd say, "I know you're putting love potion in my husband's food."

At night I cried myself to sleep. I prayed to God, asking him why he bothered giving me life. I prayed for death like one would pray for opulence or fame. I couldn't run away, I had nowhere to go. Each time I thought of leaving, I envisioned myself out there as a street beggar or a prostitute. I had nowhere to run to.

Looking back now, I don't even know if Nigeria has child services. I don't know if the country has an emergency number to call when you have your madam's hands wrapped around your throat. For years, I lived with the memories of my madam telling me to die, hurling several affronts at me.

I never thought things would change. You know your life is worse than hell when you find yourself contemplating drinking rat poison. I had nothing to lose. My dad died after he fell off a palm tree and soon after my mother died from a hit and run. The Igwe family didn't allow me to attend their funeral. A few months later, I was informed that my brother got arrested while robbing a house. Mrs Igwe said he was part of a gang and was locked up in a prison in Onitsha. I never heard from him.

For all I know that might have been a lie. He could be anywhere right now.

Mr Igwe worked for an oil company. Sometimes his co-workers came by to the house for dinner or drink. They all stared at me with the same lustful look as Mr Igwe. One of these men was Mr Coffey. Mr Coffey was a tall Caucasian man, around his early thirties with dark hair and few grey strands. He had dark facial hair which framed his face, giving him a wolfish appeal. Whenever I served him, he often asked me how I was doing. He asked me about my studies and even though I wasn't attending any school, I had to tell him everything was great. I had to give him a spurious smile.

Mr Coffey soon discovered everything wasn't great when I accidentally broke a wine glass and Mrs Igwe smacked my face with the back of her hand. I remember him yelling at her, reminding her that I was a child but she didn't care. In fact, I remember her telling him that I was the devil. Mr Coffey joined me as I picked the shards off the tiles. He walked me to the kitchen and there we were alone.

"Do you have a phone?" he asked.

I nodded imperceptibly, looking around for Mrs Igwe's shadow to show up.

"What's your number?" he asked, quietly.

I told him my number and he quickly gave me a missed call. He murmured, "Call me whenever things get out of hand. If you ever need to escape I'm here for you."

Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know. I had no intention of calling him. My situation could have been worse. In newspapers, I often found articles on maids who were set on fire by their madam, the woman who poured hot oil on her maid, maids that were raped, maids beaten to death and other unspeakable things.

One evening, Mrs Igwe was yelling at me because the stew I was cooking got burned. It never occurred to her that the reason it burnt was because she ordered me to clean up her room while I was cooking. There was no way I could be in two places at once. She was so livid that she dragged me by my ear into the kitchen. She called me names as always and smacked me a few times. Things got out of hand when she grabbed the pot of stew, raising it high to pour it on me. Instinctively, I threw my hands up and the stew poured on her instead. Mrs Igwe stood in front of me, screaming her at the top of her lungs as the red liquid along with chopped meats slid down her skin. That was the day I ran away. I had no shoes on, but I had my phone in my pocket.

I ran through the dark street, oblivious to where I was running to. Once I was far away from the house, I pulled out my phone and called Mr Coffey. I told him everything that happened.

"Where are you now?" he asked.

I had no idea where I was. I was surrounded by luxurious mansions, with high fences and big gates. I was lucky to find a gateman outside the gate of a compound who informed me where I was. An hour elapsed before a black jeep pulled over in front of me.

The windows slid down and I saw Mr Coffey seated inside. "Come on in," he said.

I got in the back of the jeep with him. He had a cigarette trapped between his lips. Puffing wreathes of smoke, he said to me, "Hope you don't mind sleeping on the couch."

I shook my head. "I used to sleep on a mat," I mumbled, still fidgeting from shock.

"Jesus," he gasped. "Well, your suffering is over." He said to me, stretching his arm towards me to pet me or something but I cringed, moving away from him.

He pulled his hand away and said, "I won't hurt you. I promise."

In the silence, all we heard was the sound of the cars passing by. I stared out the window just to avert his gaze. Once the jeep swung into traffic, Mr Coffey asked me, "Are you hungry?"

I nodded my head vigorously.

To the cab driver, he said, "Pull over at the nearest restaurant."

We parked in front of a KFC restaurant and the driver stepped out to get the bucket of chicken with fries that Mr Coffey ordered. Impatiently I waited for his return.

"Where's your school?" asked Mr Coffey.

"I don't go to school."

"Are you home schooled?"

"What's that?" I had never heard of home school before then. I didn't even know it existed. So he explained and I informed him that the Igwes stopped me from attending school since I was thirteen. He threw his head back, heaved a sigh and cursed.

He told me that he couldn't help me with an education because the school might ask questions and he could be accused of kidnapping. He asked me if I was ok hiding in his apartment. I gave him a nod. All I needed was a place to stay, and food to eat.

Later that night, we arrived at his place. He lived in a well furnished apartment.

That night I couldn't sleep. Every time I closed my eyes I saw Mrs Igwe burning with the stew, the steam rising from her skin. I lay on the couch, tumbling and wondering where my life was heading. It was hard to accept that this was my happy ending. I was so used to being miserable that I thought that if I was happy for even a second something bad would happen.

Mr Coffey took proper care of me. He treated me as if I were his daughter. He cooked for me, and bought dresses and shoes for me to wear. All I did for him was clean up the apartment.

For the first time, I sat on a dining table to eat. We never ate in silence. Mr Coffey tried to have a conversation with me despite my shyness. This helped improve my English.

For years, we lived in his apartment, making fun of people on the television, teasing each other and sharing random memories. He wanted to take me out to restaurants, cinemas, but he was afraid people would get the wrong impression. He never made any advances at me.

On my eighteenth birthday, right after eating cake and laughing at his jokes, Mr Coffey got down on one knee. He told me that I was the best thing that ever happened to him. He told me how he used to stare at his wrist watch whenever he was at work, looking forward to that time of the day when he came back home to see me.

I said yes before he was done talking. We'd spent many years in this apartment and I was willing to spend the rest of my life with him.

He pressed his lips against mine. His hands travelled my skin. As we explored each other's body, I felt it. For the very first time, I felt what was like to be loved. Tears leaked from my eyes.

"What's wrong?" he asked, staring at me solicitously.

"Nothing," I muttered with a velvety tone. I smiled at him and said, "I've never been this happy before."

We had our wedding in Oxford, England, with his family members and friends. Throughout our one week visit in England, I caught myself wondering what made him ever go to Nigeria. From my perspective, England seemed a lot safer than Nigeria. The pedestrians on the sidewalk smiled at me whenever they caught my stare unlike back home in Nigeria where everyone frowned at each other under the scorching sun. Companies had great customer service because they cared more about satisfying their customers than exploiting them. The health care system was great and there was twenty-four hour electricity unlike back home.

We got back to Nigeria and I felt like I got back to hell after a vacation in heaven. The workers at the Murtala Mohammed international airport treated everyone as dirt. Dressed in their military attire they glowered at travellers and murmured as if they had no passion for their job. Compared to the Heathrow airport this was dirt.

My visit to England helped open my eyes to things I barely noticed in Nigeria. I tried talking Liam into moving to England. He told me that he earned a lot more working here as an expatriate. I told him I had no future in Nigeria. I didn't have the requirements for a well-paid job. Whereas in England, I could work as a temp while I hunted for a permanent job. I could make some money as a sales assistant at a fashion store or cashier at supermarket in England without being exploited.

Liam loved his job; he didn't care about me sitting idle at home. He blamed himself for my desperation to leave the country because I was fine sitting home alone doing nothing before we visited England. England showed me that I could do much more with my time.

When I found out I had missed my period, I told Liam that I was pregnant. He flashed me a beatific grin and threw his arms around me. He planted kisses all over face and pulled my sweater up to plant one on my belly. He said there was no way he'd let his kid grow up here. My pregnancy compelled us to move back to England.

He got a job as an executive manager and I worked as a sales assistant for a fashion store. Liam hated his job, it didn't pay as much as the former one. So he searched for comfort at the bottom of every bottle.

Whenever he got drunk, Liam would say things like, "I know you don't love me anymore." He'd dislodge the books on the shelves or punch his fist into a wall and shout, "You're sleeping around, aren't you?" Often times, I told him I wasn't. But he yelled at me and called me a liar. Sometimes he cursed at me.

This escalated after a few months. He came home drunk and was yelling as always but this time around he accused me of sleeping with one of his friends. I denied and abruptly he grabbed my face and bashed it against the wall. This was the first time Liam ever laid his hands on me.

From then on, I started coming up with excuses for the bruises on my skin. I couldn't tell anyone the truth. I couldn't even call the police because I was afraid. The last thing I wanted was my husband in jail. The man who saved me from the Igwe family, from hell, locked behind bars. I thought this was a phase and soon he'd quit drinking.

But Liam couldn't stop drinking. He got worse even. Alcohol became his new religion. He drank it every morning and every night, like a prayer. Often times, I saw him walk out of the loo clutching a bottle of vodka. He went to bed, hugging a bottle of rum.

Before, the man I loved returned whenever he was sober but when his drinking increased he was nowhere to be found. Sometimes he roamed around the house without acknowledging my presence and other times he chased after me and attacked me.

However, I still loved him.

It was a Saturday afternoon, when I got home from grocery shopping. I found Liam passed out on his own vomit. So I dragged him to the bathroom and cleaned him up. I threw his arm around my shoulders as I led him to the bed. I tucked him under the blanket. I planted a kiss upon his forehead and that was the last time I saw him.

Here I am, in a hotel room, reflecting on my life. Just as the year comes with four seasons, life goes through seasons. It starts with the fall, that moment when everything you love begins to wither, you witness the darkness falling upon your life, and then you reach the dark winter, when your bones quiver within your skin, and all you want is someone to hold on to, but we tend to forget that spring will come along, to help us start a new leaf, and the summer of my life will soon be born.

7 comments:

  1. this is so well written, it´s a litany of despair, but not without hope. there´s more than a ring of truth about this which makes it all the more convincing. you can really believe that the central character went on to make something out of her life.

    Michael McCarthy

    ReplyDelete
  2. Like an onion, there are many layers to this well-written story. It's rich with detail, and undertone, making it a wonderful read. Like Michael, I really want to believe with her upbeat tone at the end that she went on to conquer the world with a smile.

    ReplyDelete
  3. From the first paragraph I felt utterly compelled to read on and find out what happens to 'I'. The journey is painful for her, but what an upbeat - even joyous - ending!
    Maybe there's an extra intensity of reading experience that comes out of not giving one's narrator a name?
    Some lovely phrases: 'I prayed for death like one would pray for opulence or fame...he searched for comfort at the bottom of each bottle...drank it every morning, every night like a prayer.'
    An unpleasant experience for the narrator, but an oddly pleasant one for the reader.

    Brooke Fieldhouse

    ReplyDelete
  4. It kind of drags on a bit at some point but overall., not bad at all.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks a lot for your kind comments, please check out http://www.worldcitystories.com/index.php/africa/nigeria/lagos/135-two-strangers

    ReplyDelete
  6. A well-told story, simple and direct. The style captures the innocence, pain and experiences of the young woman as if told by her. It is a story that carries you along and you want to finish.

    ReplyDelete
  7. A well planned story... sounds so real just like a movie... orderly placed...

    ReplyDelete