It was a decision that changed all our lives.
In a matter of days, Coach’s loan was fully paid off, and Ahunna was taken, first of all to the Teaching Hospital in Enugu, and then to a specialist hospital in Port Harcourt, where she would be managed before flying out to India. Even though the decision to marry me off to Chief Nsofor had been a weighty one, seeing the improvement in Ahunna’s health was enough to lift our mother’s spirits. And with Coach no longer looming above us like a stormy cloud, she was soon back to looking more like her old self.
But Jidenna had been furious when he heard about the price that would have to be paid for all of it. At 15, he fancied himself more of a man, and indeed the head of our household, so when we’d told him of my impending marriage to the Asaba millionaire, he had exploded like a volcano.
“How can you marry an old man? What about school, NASA, and all the other plans Dad had for you?”
“NASA? Your family is burning and you’re still talking about NASA? What about your sister?” I snapped back. “What about the fact that your mother was prostituting herself to that animal called Coach? Maybe you want to wait till you have to drop out of school and face Maduekwesi’s mechanic work full time, before you your eyes will clear!”
He had no comeback, and this was expected. There was no possible comeback. The truth was plain to see. Without Chief Nsofor, we were on the fast track to implosion. Coach would inevitably have gotten impatient with the repayment coming in trickles, our very kind Landlord would have tired of harbouring us for free since my father’s death, and Ahunna would have died. It was that simple.
But even though I had agreed to it, and had even suggested it, I found myself praying for some kind of miracle to avert it, wishing Chief would change his mind about wanting anything in exchange for his ‘kindness’ or, if he was insistent on an exchange, would marry my mother instead. When my father’s older brother, Mathias, came to the house to discuss the matter with my mother, I was hopeful that he would be so scandalised by the idea, he would call the whole thing off. But there was no such luck. Yes, he had worn a sullen face, but when I overheard him discussing the details of the small ceremony, I knew my fate was sealed.
A little under a month after his proposition, Chief Nsofor and I got married in our living room. Not wanting to put our family disgrace on display for our neighbours to see, the ceremony had taken place right there in our family living room, right underneath a picture of my late father. Only two of my father’s brothers, Uncle Mathias and Uncle Cyprian, were in attendance, and there were even none of my mother’s family members there at all. Aunty Uloma had reluctantly attended, but she had been anything but her usual boisterous self, and had taken her seat next to my mother, intermittently sighing deeply and shaking her head the whole time. Chief Nsofor himself had come with a handful of witnesses, who appeared to be more of acquaintances than family. I’d even expected to see his rude first son, Akanna, but he had been conspicuously absent. But this didn’t seem to bother Chief, as he was in extremely good spirits, cracking jokes and laughing almost from the very moment he and his entourage arrived. He was in such high spirits that even my Uncles were soon laughing and making merry with the visitors from Asaba. They even managed to squeeze out a few smiles from my mother. But Aunty Uloma and Jidenna remained stone-faced the whole time. Jidenna’s face could not mask his own rage, and he stood huffing and puffing in a corner of the room. My poor brother. I knew he was angry more with himself than anyone else. I knew he thought he had failed us, he had failed me. I wish I’d been able to give him the assurance that this was so far from the truth. But I couldn’t. How could I give something I didn’t have.
Kneeling there, dressed in my mother’s most expensive lace material, I shut my eyes as Uncle Mathias prayed over us, my new husband and I. I shut my eyes, not only because I didn’t want to see the smug grin on Chief’s face, but also because I could not bear to meet my father’s gaze. Never had his picture seemed more lifelike than it did that day. It was a picture of him taken at a family wedding a few years before, and from the uncomfortable smile on his face, he had obviously been stampeded into taking it. When he died, that was the only decent picture of his we had, the only one that could frame to mount on a stool outside our apartment, where an old notebook had been converted to a condolence register. And when we returned to Onitsha after his funeral, it was hung in the most prominent part of our living room, right above our old television. In the months gone by, I’d even forgotten it was there, but kneeling hand in hand with a man almost four times my age, I was all too aware of his sad, probing eyes. I knew he would be turning in his grave over what was happening. I knew he would have never even allowed me marry the man of my choice at the expense of getting a good education, talk less of marrying for money. I knew he would weep bitterly, seeing me give up my bright future to be the teenage bride of a much older man.
So I kept my eyes closed.
After the ceremony, my mother avoided making eye contact with me, and busied herself with putting finishing touches to packing my box. Chief and his entourage were waiting to leave with their bride, and so we sat in her bedroom, wordlessly, as she rushed around packing things that we both knew would be trash the next day. Ahunna was in hospital in Port Harcourt, and we were both happy that she hadn’t been at home to witness the charade. Having started kidney dialysis, she was in much better health and was much more lucid than she’d been in the last few months. At the age of 12, she too would have understood the weight of the sacrifice her sister was making for the family, and would surely have been saddened by it. So it had been the silent decision to shield her from this information for as long as we could.
The door opened, and Aunty Uloma walked in. She stood in the middle of the room, looking from me, sitting on the bed and looking on listlessly, and my mother, squashing the umpteenth wrapper into the box that could hardly close as it was.
“Ugochi, i gwala ya okwu?” she asked, but when my mother did not even as much as acknowledge her question, she turned to me. “Has your mother spoken to you?”
I looked at my mother, unsure of what this ‘speaking’ was about, but not wanting to say anything that would indict her. But my wide and confused eyes were more of an answer than any words I could have said.
“You haven’t spoken to your daughter? They are about to take her away to a strange place, and her own mother has not given her any advise? Any guidance?”
“She doesn’t need any guidance,” my mother muttered in response. “Ọ bụ nwanyị. She’s also a woman. There is nothing new that she is going to face.”
“Ewo!” Aunty Uloma exclaimed, clasping both arms over her chest. “Chukwu gbaghara anyi ooooo! God forgive us for what we are doing to this girl.”
Tears sprang from my eyes before I could stop them, and before I knew it I was weeping in Aunty Uloma’s arms. The dam was finally broken, and I sobbed loudly, weeping for the loss of my innocence and the incarceration that awaited me.
“Adanna, what is all this?” my mother exclaimed, her own eyes shiny with unshed tears. “Do you want them to hear you crying? Do you want Chief to think you have changed your mind?”
But try as I may, I couldn’t stop the tears. It was finally dawning on me that Chief Nsofor would be my husband. The 56 year old father of the boy I truly did love, would be my husband.
Exasperated, my mother left the room.
“Leave her. Ọ nọ kwa n’ihe mgbu. She is also hurting,” Aunty Uloma said, before tilting my chin up. “That’s enough now. No more crying. Time for crying has stopped. You need to be strong now. You need to be brave. Do you hear me?”
Still crying, I nodded, even though I felt anything but.
“You need to be as wise as an owl, but also as gentle as a lamb, ịnụgo?” she continued. “Whether 19 or 90, men are all the same. They want a woman who can spoil and pamper them. If you treat him right, there is nothing you will not get from him. If you can wrap him around your finger, he will protect you with his life. And in a strange place, that is the most important thing you need.”
I nodded again, my tears beginning to ebb, the realisation that I would have to bed this old man sitting like a pile of rocks in my stomach.
“But open your eyes, my daughter. Observe everything around you. You must always be one step ahead. Always!” she continued, her own voice breaking at this point. “I will be praying for you. And if you ever need any help, you know how to find me.”
We sat in the bedroom for a few more minutes, before she pulled me to my feet.
“Ngwanu, change and look presentable,” she said, a determined look on her face. “No matter what you do, you must always look your best. It was your looks that attracted the man, and it is your looks that will make him your slave. So remove that oversize lace wrapper and wear something more flattering.”
Even though I’d been just as happy to leave for Chief’s house in my mother’s wrapper and my face makeup already faded, Aunty Uloma fished out the Ankara dress I’d made the Christmas before; a low neckline, slim-fitting dress in the ‘Shabba’ style that was all the rage at the time, meaning it had a slit that ran higher up my thighs than my father had liked. But my father wasn’t there.
She took her time to brush my hair so hard, it shone. She held it in a tight bun, making a bow around it with the dress’s accompanying head tie. After a dusting of face powder and a slick of Vaseline across my lips, she stepped back and smiled. I didn’t even have to look at a mirror. I knew I looked much better than I had during the earlier ceremony.
“You go market true true, Chief. Nwa agbọghọ a mara mma!” I heard some of his companions exclaim.
From the corner of my eyes, I saw my Uncles beam with pride at their beautiful niece, but for some reason, my mother looked annoyed.
“Why did you change?” she asked in a gruff whisper, moving close to me.
“Chief married a young girl, a fresh young girl, not one who has gone past her shelf date,” Aunty Uloma whispered back, glaring at her sister-in-law.
I looked around for Jidenna, so that I could at least say goodbye to him, but was disappointed to see he had left the house. It was obviously too hard for him to watch.
As I was led out of the house, to the even more imposing white Land Rover Chief had been chauffeured in, almost my entire neighbourhood was clamoured outside, waiting to catch a glimpse of what was going on. The car stood, loud and majestic like the white elephant it was, an oddity in my lower middle-class locality. To make matters worse, in its company were two glossy black Volkswagen Santana cars, which had apparently ferried his guests. I guess word had already filtered out about my unfortunate marriage and everyone wanted to see with their own eyes if what they were hearing was true. I made eye contact with Ogbonna, the man who lived in the flat opposite ours and who had been very friendly with my late father, and the pain I saw in his eyes almost brought out my tears again. Almost. Instead, rather than cry, I maintained eye contact with him for a little longer than I should have, before finally looking away. Where had he, and in fact all the others, been when Ahunna was wasting away to death, or when Coach was bullying my family? Rather than help us, he had been part of the gossip machinery that had crucified my mother for the decisions she had been forced to make. Walking out, ordinarily I would have kept my head bowed, not wanting to meet any of their eyes, but this time I walked with my head held high, and my back ramrod straight, putting on an illusion of confidence I certainly didn’t feel.
“Can’t we follow her?” Aunty Uloma demanded. “She is a small girl and can’t just go with you like that. One of us needs to accompany her.”
“Mba, not today,” Uncle Mathias interjected. “Anyị ga-amara ebe ahụ, but not today. But you know this, Uloma. They will host the mother, brother and myself next week. Abi, Chief?”
“Ọgọ’m, of course,” was Chief’s boisterous answer. “You can even bring the Aunty along so her body can come down. Ọ na-achagharị iwe ụbọchị niile. The woman’s face has been like spoilt eba since we got here!”
As everyone, my mother included, burst in loud laughter, Aunty Uloma and I exchanged a look, and even though no words were said, in her eyes was a reminder to be strong, to be brave.
Minutes later we were on the highway, headed to Asaba. Chief and I were the only two in the car, save for the driver. The other cars in the convoy were riding behind us, and I found myself wishing for their loud banter, or anything that would diffuse the silence in the car. But no. it was just us two; me…and my husband.
“Nwanyi o ma,” he said to me after a while, running his knuckle across my face. “How lucky a man am I!”
Rather than wallow in his adulation, I’d turned my face away. I wasn’t quite ready to put on a show, playing the role of yielding and attentive wife. Right now, all I wanted was my space. And thankfully, he respected it and didn’t make any more advances.
I stole a few glances at him. The honest truth is that I could have been dealt a far worse hand. Chief looked better than many men half his age. And it wasn’t just because of his expensively maintained skin or impeccable grooming, his body was still toned and he had the same boyishly handsome look his younger son had. The truth is, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for me to learn to love him. At least that way, it would make for a more tolerable life with him.
When we got to Asaba, my nerves rose to the fore and I kept thinking we would turn off the major road any minute. But we didn’t, and instead drove straight through the town.
“I thought we were going to Asaba,” I remarked.
“Ah, she finally speaks!” Chief teased, smiling at me. “I was beginning to wonder if we left your beautiful voice back there in Onitsha.”
This time, I refused to look away, but instead held his gaze, straight faced.
“The bakery is in Asaba, my dear,” he finally answered. “My ranch is in Ojiji. That’s where I’m from. Your mother has investigated me so much, I’m surprised she didn’t tell you.”
Ojiji was another 20 minute drive from Asaba, and I wondered how a detail as important as that could have been omitted.
“Have you been there before?” he asked.
I shook my head, and turned my face away, dismissing him. If there was anything that would make my situation worse, this was it, living away from the major town. When we finally turned off the road and into the narrower streets leading to Ojiji, I was completely rankled. I hadn’t prepared my mind for village life.
The moment we turned into the street, I could immediately identify his house. Standing regal at the end of the street, on a least 1,000 acres of land, the 3-storey building looked like a cross between a Church and a hotel, with it’s large pillars and Cathedral-like windows juxtaposed with modern lines and elaborate lighting. It stood out like a sore thumb not only on its quiet street, but in fact the entire, sleepy town. It was everything I’d imagined it would be, and so much more. From the gate to the house was a full five-minute drive, and I marvelled at the sheer expanse of the compound, complete with a small pond, and peacocks running around the lush greenery. He hadn’t exaggerated when he called the place a ranch.
“Home, sweet home!” he exclaimed, when the car pulled to a stop in front of the main house.
“Nnọọ,” chimed a middle-aged woman, standing at the door. “Welcome, Chief,” she beamed at me. “Welcome o. Welcome.”
I said nothing in response, and instead hovered around the booth of the car, waiting to get my suitcase. But Chief gently took my hand and pulled me away, just as two uniformed men ran to the car to offload the vehicles. And I got the message. Over here, there were servants for that kind of thing.
“Uzochi how are you?” Chief greeted the woman before turning to look at me. “This is Adanna. My wife.”
I bristled at the word, but the same word elicited a broad grin from the woman.
“Eeooh! Ọ mara mma!” she exclaimed. “Nne, welcome. Welcome.”
“Uzochi will take care of you,” Chief said to me, just as we were about to walk inside. “I have to make a quick dash to the bakery. I will be back soon.”
“But it’s already evening,” I exclaimed, suddenly feeling anxious about being left alone with strangers.
He smiled, pleased to hear the concern in my voice. “I won’t be long, my Princess. Trust me when I say if it was within my control, nobody would be able to tear me away from you. But alas, there are people waiting there for me. I’ll be back soon. I promise.”
I stood there and watched as he got back into the car, blew me a kiss and was driven away, and I hated the fact that, in only a few short hours, I had already gotten accustomed to his company. In resignation, I followed Uzochi into the house. Walking inside, I let out an involuntary gasp, the white and gold accented décor taking my breath away. In all my years, I had never seen such luxury and grandeur up close. It reminded me of the Von Trapp family mansion in The Sound of Music movie. I caught a glimpse of the living room as I was led upstairs, and I almost felt like running there and doing a Julie Andrews twirl. From this display of opulence, Chief’s wealth was so much more phenomenal than any of us had imagined. But it couldn’t be just from baking bread and biscuits. Not even if he was baking for the entire country on a daily basis.
We walked to the 2nd level, and Uzochi walked me into a large room, with a Queen-sized canopy bed and a cream, gold and white colour theme. With the mahogany wood furniture, and cotton and lace sheets, it looked like it had been cut straight out of a magazine.
“Do you have any more suitcases?” Uzochi asked, and I realised the uniformed gentlemen from earlier had beaten us to the room, as my box was already perched at the foot of the bed. “There is more than enough space for all your things,” she continued, pulling open the floor to ceiling closet and pointing out a similar one across the room. Both of them were empty. I was suddenly confused.
“Where are Chief’s things?”
Uzochi looked at me, confused, before she realised what I was asking and burst into laughter. “Chief has his own room, Nne. Upstairs. This one is for you.”
That piece of information made me look at the room with totally different eyes, and my separation anxiety slowly started to morph into elation. Not only was this beautiful room mine and mine alone, I didn’t have to share a bed with him. I wasn’t naïve enough to think he wouldn’t want to share mine, but at least, it wouldn’t have to be a daily occurrence.
“Let me leave you, my daughter. You have had a long day,” Uzochi said, walking to the door. “If you want to eat, just call for me, and I’ll organise something for you.”
“Aunty Uzochi, please, can I ask you a question?” I called out, not wanting to lose the opportunity to get valuable information from the older woman. “Chief’s wife… the Calabar woman. Is she still around?”
Uzochi let out a long hiss. “Nkoyo? Ọ laala, thank God. She has gone back to wherever it was Chief picked her from.”
“And her children?”
Uzochi shook her head. “She had none.”
“How many kids does Chief have?”
Uzochi stared at me, confused. “Ọ gwaghị gị? He hasn’t told you?” when I said nothing, she shrugged. “There are three of them. One from his first wife, and the last two from the late one, God rest her soul.”
“Where are they?”
“Akanna is running the business in Lagos. Apunanwu is rounding up her degree program in Benin and should be home any day now. And Anayo, the youngest, is abroad in school.”
Anayo. Hearing his name again broke my heart anew.
“I’m sure you’ll meet them soon,” she said as she walked to the door, but when she got to it, she turned around again. “I know this must be hard for you. I have a young daughter, so I can imagine how you must be feeling being here by yourself. But you have nothing to worry about. Chief is a very kind man. He has taken care of my family for decades. If not for him, I don’t know what would have become of us. Forget about the age. Trust me, you couldn’t have found a better man than Chief to marry.”
No, I didn’t agree with her. I could have found a better man to marry. I’d already found him, in fact. One who had the same DNA as him.
I was tempted to ask why none of his children had come for the wedding, or why there had been no pomp and pageantry to welcome the new bride home, but I remembered how low key my family had also kept the wedding and then I understood why. This wasn’t the kind of thing to shout about from the rooftops. Besides, with the number of wives the man had already had, his friends, family and even house servants had clearly tired of wedding festivities. But it suited me just fine.
After a shower and a change, I took Uzochi up on her offer and went downstairs for a meal. I noticed other members of staff giving me curious looks, and I realised that, just like back home in Onitsha, I was also a spectacle here; a beautiful, young girl married to an older man.
Dinner was a meal of steaming hot rice and Native fish stew, and I almost scraped off the enamel of my plate eating it. I couldn’t remember when last I’d eaten a meal so wholesome and delicious, considering that not only had my mother had switched off elaborate cooking after my father died, we hadn’t even had the money to buy anything outside of the very basics. The size of fish I’d been served was more than what Jidenna, mom and I would have eaten combined.
Once dinner was over, I walked over to the living room, looking at the portraits hanging on the wall. There was one of a much younger Chief, and I smiled at the image of the stunningly handsome man, not at all surprised by how good looking he’d been. In fact, age and money had only served to further refine those looks, making him even more attractive now. Then there was a picture of a pretty, thin woman with a thick afro, and I realised that was likely Anayo’s mother. From what he’d told me, his father and Akanna’s mother had parted acrimoniously, so I didn’t expect her picture to be there. This was obviously Chief’s dearly departed wife. Next to hers was a portrait of Akanna, from his graduation from the look of it, and for the first time, I saw the resemblance he too had with his father. There was a smirk on his face as he stared back at the camera, certificate in hand, and just like the last time I’d seen him, a chill ran down my spine. There was just something about him that rubbed me the wrong way. Then there was the a portrait of a girl who was the spitting image of the woman with the afro, and I deduced that was Apunanwu. She had the same sad eyes and unsmiling face, and I started to worry about what meeting her for the first time would be like.
And then there was Anayo.
Standing below his portrait, I looked up at him, this boy who had stolen my heart, and I was taken back to the only two times I’d seen him; the time he had accompanied their Bakery Manager to my parents’ store, and when we’d spent that beautiful day together in town. With smiling eyes, he looked back at the camera as if he had a secret that was too much for him to contain. Looking at him, I was falling in love all over again and as my hand reached up to touch the painting, hoping to somehow be able to touch some part of him, the finality of what had occurred hit me again. I would never be his any longer. We would never be a couple. Never ever. Never.
And it broke my heart.
Later that night, I was already back in my room and asleep, when there was a knock on the door. Opening it, I was equal parts relieved, surprised and frightened to see that it was Chief Nsofor.
“Welcome, Sir,” I said, with a small curtesy.
Chief bellowed as he sat on my bed. “Onye bu Sir? Who is your Sir? I’m your sweetie pie o! Just like you are my honey.”
I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes.
“Come sit next to me,” Chief said, his voice soft.
My heart dropped, wondering if this was the moment I’d been dreading. I reluctantly took my seat next to him, and stared ahead, not knowing what to expect.
“You are the most beautiful being I have ever laid eyes on,” he said, stroking my arm. “Look at how beautiful and soft your skin is, just like a baby’s. You are beautiful and pure like an angel. You’re a virgin, aren’t you?”
I nodded, happy that at least that fact was true.
“From that first day I saw you at the bakery, you just exploded my brain,” Chief said, stroking my face now. “I mewo ka m bụrụ onye nzuzu! You’ve turned me into a fool for you. All I can think about is you.”
I sighed deeply, waiting for the speeches to end and the inevitable to commence.
“You are beautiful, pure and spotless,” Chief said, taking my hand in his and kissing it. “There is no need to rush. I know you are not quite ready for me tonight, and I’m patient enough to wait for you to be ready, truly ready for me. In the meantime, I want to keep you pure and spotless, just like a beautiful flower.”
I looked at him, shocked. Had he said the words I thought he had?
“Sleep well, Ezigbo nwunye’m!” he said, walking to the door. “I’m in the room right on top of yours, if you need me.”
I stared at the closed door after he’d left, wondering if he had truly decided to spare me the agony of sex with him. Upon realising that he had, I felt a warmth in my heart for him. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all. Maybe I would be able to love him after all. Maybe I would be able to forget Anayo after all.
Check out Adanna’s story here: